The forcible relocation of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War

Japanese-Canadians in Slocan City being relocated to camps in the interior of British Columbia. © Tak Toyota / Library and Archives Canada / C-046356

For the week of Monday May 25, 2020.

On May 31, 1946, the first Japanese Canadians left Vancouver for Uraga, Tokyo Bay. They had signed “voluntary repatriation” papers—often understood as a euphemism for deportation or exile—that gave the federal government the right to send them to Japan. 

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and British Hong Kong in 1941, longstanding anti-Asian sentiment and paranoia fuelled fears that Japanese Canadians might support enemy attacks on the Pacific Coast. In early 1942, the Canadian government ordered people of Japanese descent to leave coastal communities. More than 90 percent of the 23,000 Japanese Canadians were uprooted, restricted in their movements, and had their homes, businesses, and other property sold. By 1945, more than 8,000 had already moved east of the Rockies, mainly to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba or in lumber and mining camps, in domestic service, or on farms in Ontario. Life was hard: their employment opportunities were limited and employers often exploited them. One Nisei, a second-generation Canadian, recalled how she came east with only $35 in her pocket and few clothes after four years in one of the old mining towns in the British Columbia interior where the federal government housed many of the Japanese. 

Bowing to pressure from those British Columbians who did not want any Japanese in the province, in the spring of 1945 the federal government informed Japanese Canadians that they must reside east of the Rockies or apply for “voluntary repatriation” to Japan. Uncertain of their prospects east of the Rockies, disillusioned with Canada, or anxious about relatives in Japan, 6,844 adults with 3,503 dependent children signed papers to go to Japan. Some, however, had second thoughts. Civil liberties groups, such as the Cooperative Committee on Japanese Canadians (CCJC), and church organizations successfully lobbied the federal government in 1946 to end the deportation of Japanese Canadians who had signed “repatriation” documents. However, by this time, 3,964 Japanese Canadians had left the country, many of them Canadian-born.

Japanese Canadian Internment is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: 

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about the histories, achievements, and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent by exploring articles in our online archives about “Paper Sons”: Chinese Immigration to Canada, SS Komagata Maru, the forcible relocation of Japanese Canadians during and after the Second World War, the Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple, and The New Canadian: A Voice for Japanese Canadians.