Dec. 7 marked the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese military.
“Pearl Harbour Day” kicked off an intense four-year struggle for supremacy which ranged over much of the world, in what was truly a world war.
Most Canadian households were impacted by the Second World War, but it was here in B.C. that a few citizens felt the greatest impact.
It was here that Canadian citizens, some of whom were First World War veterans of the Canadian Army, were forcibly uprooted from their homes, stripped of their possessions, lost almost all their basic rights and were set upon by their own government with a vengeance which had no precedent.
Japanese-Canadians had lived in many parts of the Lower Mainland for decades. In Surrey, many were farmers, living in the Strawberry Hill and Kennedy areas, near Scott Road. They often were fruit growers who provided for their families from a few upland acres. There were also Japanese-Canadian fishermen living in the Annieville area on the Surrey-Delta border, along the Fraser River.
As a group, they had experienced racism for years. But the invasion of Pearl Harbour gave those who’d had the Japanese-Canadians in their sights a potent weapon.
Federal, provincial and local politicians all begged the Liberal government on Prime Minister Mackenzie King to kick all people of Japanese origin off the B.C. coast, claiming many were “fifth columnists” who would send messages to Japan and allow it to zero in on B.C. targets.
Espionage wasn’t a completely unreasonable fear, but it was exploited mercilessly by people like Ian Mackenzie, an MP and member of the federal cabinet, and Halford Wilson, a Vancouver alderman. It paid political dividends to fan the flames of hatred in others.
A blackout was imposed on the B.C. coast after Pearl Harbour, for fears that Japanese fighter and bomber planes would attack. They did attack the Estevan Point lighthouse, in an isolated Vancouver Island location – but that was it.
My grandfather was an air raid warden in White Rock at that time. He and others patrolled the streets to ensure that there was no light showing anywhere, and no target for any enemies.
Meanwhile, Japanese-Canadians were rounded up, with many taken to the PNE grounds and kept in livestock barns.
They were moved to internment camps in the B.C. interior and as far away as Ontario. Those who owned land, cars, stocks and bonds, boats and farm equipment saw them sold for a fraction of their true value.
They had almost no say in any of this. No one took up their cause, including the CCF (now the NDP), which up to the time of Pearl Harbour had been quite sympathetic to Japanese-Canadians.
Most Japanese-Canadians ended up living in other parts of Canada, and never returned. The few who did found all they had worked for in the 1920s and 1930s was gone.
More than 40 years after the fact, Canada apologized for the atrocious treatment it had bestowed on its own citizens. It was too late for many, but it was both necessary and appropriate.
Some say that such a thing would never happen again, as we now have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But never underestimate the depth of hatred and ill-will which can be fanned in a time of crisis, and the willingness of many politicians to capitalize on it.
The best place to discover firsthand how Canada treated its own citizens of Japanese ancestry is the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, located in New Denver in the West Kootenay. It is the only internment camp still standing.
It is long overdue that Surrey and Delta remember the Japanese-Canadians who once were a vital part of this area, and honour them in some tangible way.
Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.