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A Missed Memo: Japanese-Canadians Enlist in the First World War

For the week of Monday May 13, 2013

On May 19, 1916, Lieutenant Colonel H.E. Lyon read a memo with orders to refuse the enlistment of Japanese Canadians. It came too late. He'd already enlisted two. Resolutely determined to serve their country despite not being fully recognized as equal citizens, more than 200 Japanese-Canadian soldiers overcame prejudice and proved themselves on the battlefield during the First World War.

Japanese-Canadian soldiers of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion, France, ca. 1917.
© Courtesy of Lieutenant Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, British Columbia
As soon as Canada declared war on Germany in August 1914, Japanese Canadians in Vancouver tried to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After being turned down by Vancouver-based regiments and by the federal government, Japanese Canadians offered their service to the Alberta militia. When Major General E.A. Cruikshank asked his battalion commanders if they wanted 200 Japanese recruits on April 26, 1916, the 191st and 192nd battalions said yes.

Three weeks later Cruikshank received instructions from the federal government to reject the recruits. He relayed these instructions to Lieutenant Colonel Lyon of the 192nd, but Lyon had already enlisted two Japanese Canadians by the time the orders reached him. 

Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC.
© National Defence and the Canadian Forces/Thomas Donovan; Julie Clements

A total of 222 Japanese Canadians served in the First World War. Most of them participated in the famous Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Eleven of them received the Military Medal for bravery and 54 were killed.

Despite admirable service to Canada, upon their return to British Columbia Japanese Canadians were still denied the right to vote. For 10 years the Canadian Japanese Association struggled for suffrage. Finally in 1931 Japanese Canadian veterans were granted the right to vote. They were the first Asian Canadians to win the right to vote in British Columbia, then home to most Asian Canadians. The long struggle for equality, however, was not yet over. General suffrage for Japanese Canadians would not be realised until after the Second World War.

The Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote was designated a National Historic Event in 2009. They fought not only for Canada but also for the right of their community to participate fully in Canadian society.

May is Asian Heritage Month! For more stories on the history of Asian communities in Canada, please read The Asahi Baseball Team: A Tale of Perseverance, The Asahis take on the Tokyo Giants, A Time of Tragedy, Vancouver’s Chinatown: a vibrant neighbourhood! and Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers.

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