Following the Great Depression and with another impending World War, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was left in a position whereby he had to consider the economic, political, and social influences these minority groups had on Canadians, and act accordingly in order to maintain a unified nation. King’s desire to cater to public opinion often left him conflicted. His personal feelings are reflected in his diaries which were published at the end of the 20th century. Through his diaries, it becomes evident that King was quite sympathetic towards Japanese Canadians but did not want to risk a national unity crisis. As a result, King, guided by his cabinet members and the general attitudes towards these groups, made decisions that are considered to be racist and xenophobic, ultimately having a negative impact on his political legacy. The internment of Japanese people in Canada reveals the conceptions that many had about race during a key period in Canadian nation building.
Major changes in the Canadian immigration policies were facilitated by economic interests such as land development opportunities, railway constructors, and other capital interests. When considering potential migrants, economic development was the primary goal of the government. In 1877, Japanese immigration to Canada began,and by 1931, Canada’s Japanese population totaled around 20,000 people who mostly settled in British Columbia. Although Japanese people did not have the right to vote and were banned from several professions such as law and pharmacy, they became farmers, fishers, miners, store owners, and more.However, as the Japanese community began to grow in Canada, they were met with hostility and in some cases, violence.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Canadians grew more anxious about the presence of Japanese people around them. Despite that many Japanese people expressed their support of the Canadian war effort by purchasing victory bonds,or attempting to enlist, racial hostilities flourished. As tensions increased,Japanese people were seen by many as a threat to national unity and national security. By the end of 1941, the RCMP began arresting Japanese people that they were suspicious of, Japanese-owned fishing boats were impounded, and Japanese newspapers and schools were voluntarily shut down.
In February of 1942, the Canadian government detained and dispossessed the majority of people of Japanese descent living in Canada.Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 allowed for Canada to use the War Measures Act to remove all Japanese Canadians that were residing within 160km of the Pacific Coast and send them to work or reside on farms or in Prisoner of War camps in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario. Many people were separated from their families and their belongings and forced to live in inhumane,cramped living conditions with little access to basic living necessities. In 1943, another order-in-council allowed for the liquidation of all Japanese property that was in the custody of the government. This meant that homes,businesses, and personal property of internees were sold, and the proceeds were used to pay for the social assistance of Japanese Canadians who were detained.
The xenophobia and racist attitudes experienced by Japanese people in Canada proved to be detrimental to the community. Even after the war had ended, Prime Minister Mackenzie King continued to cater to the racist sentiment found within the nation’s general public and among his fellow politicians. No longer wanting Japanese people to be confined to a single province, he offered them the choice of moving east, or moving to Japan. Over a qua of the people who moved to Japan were Canadian-born. By 1948, Japanese people were granted the right to vote as tensions began to settle. The internment of Japanese people in Canada serves as an example in Canadian history whereby a group of people was labelled as a threat and suffered horrific and traumatic consequences at the hands of the government as a result of this. In 1988,former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rose in the House of Commons and apologized on behalf of the Canadian Government for the actions committed against Japanese people during the Second World War. The stories and testimonies from survivors and their families provide insight into this horrific period of Canadian history which must never be forgotten.