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Opinion Lessons from the Japanese Canadian internments: Policies built on fear won’t make us safer

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Jan. 19 is an ignominious and little-known landmark on the Canadian calendar. It was on this date in 1943 that Canadian politicians authorized the forced sale of all of the homes, businesses, farms and possessions of Japanese Canadians who had been uprooted from coastal British Columbia in the previous year under the pretext of national security. The lives of affected Japanese Canadians would never be the same.

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The dispossession of property was uniquely Canadian. Notably, the United States, which also interned citizens of Japanese descent, refrained from forcing the sale of their property and personal belongings so that many could return to their lives at the end of the war. Not in Canada, where the hard work of generations of Japanese-Canadian families and communities was obliterated by the state.

Order-in-Council 469 of Jan. 19, 1943, demands our attention today. The treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War demonstrates the challenge of upholding civil and human rights at a time of widely perceived national insecurity, a challenge that will help to define Canadian multiculturalism in the coming century.

Current research by the Landscapes of Injustice project – a national collaboration of researchers, community organizations and museums – is revealing disturbing new details of this history. The forced sale of Japanese Canadian-owned property played no role in ensuring the security of the Pacific Coast. The homes Japanese Canadians left behind – mostly rented – and warehouses of their personal belongings posed no conceivable threat. Equally troubling, the policy of dispossession originated, at least in part, in the City of Vancouver, where local town planners and city council saw the uprooting as an "opportune time to clean up housing conditions in what is generally known as 'Japtown.'"

Sales of seized property spiked in the summer of 1944, even as Prime Minister Mackenzie King stood in the House of Commons to announce that the previous two years of battle had "carried the Allied war effort across the great divide from uncertainty of victory on the one side to certainty of victory on the other." Indeed, the active dispossession of Japanese Canadians by their own government – 75 per cent were Canadians by birth or naturalization – continued even after the war had ended. Rikizo Yoneyama wrote to the minister of justice in July, 1944, to express the depth of his loss: "My wife and I have been Canadian subjects for 30 years. It does not seem just that as Canadians my family should be deprived of a home which to us meant more than just a home. It was to us, the foundation of security and freedom as Canadian citizens."

The wartime fates of people of Japanese descent in North America have recently returned to headline news. The National Association of Japanese Canadians, which in the 1980s led the Redress movement, called last year for the repeal of Bill C-51 (the complex omnibus legislation dealing with surveillance, information sharing among government agencies and various new terrorist-related crimes) by reminding the government of what then-prime minister Brian Mulroney called its "solemn commitment" that the mistreatment of Canadians in the name of security would "never again in this country be countenanced or repeated."

In the fall, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair explicitly compared Bill C-51 to the Orders-in-Council of the 1940s, which curtailed the rights of Japanese Canadians. In the United States, Donald Trump indicated that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during the war may have been the correct policy, shortly before calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Jan. 19, 1943, is therefore a date worth remembering. The forced sale of Japanese-Canadian property marked a moment in Canada's past when racism, misunderstanding and fear wrapped themselves in misguided notions of security and in the formal language of the law. Other and nefarious agendas could be pursued in a political atmosphere clouded by fear. We live with the legacy of those decisions today – the lost property, livelihoods and connections of a generation of Canadians, the eradication of a downtown neighbourhood in Vancouver, the painful memories of lives dispossessed.

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But Jan. 19 can serve as more than a memorial to a past mistake. Non-state violence and mass migration will continue to challenge Canadians to respect human rights in the face of dilemmas of insecurity. The past does not repeat itself, but it does offer powerful precedent from which we, and other nations, must learn.

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