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HISTORY COLUMN: Reflecting on the 32nd anniversary of Canada’s apology to Japanese-Canadians

Japanese-Canadians an integral part of Tofino and Ucluelet’s history.
Paul Kariya is working with the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society and others to host a workshop to bring together the First Nations, Japanese and White settler communities to reminisce, exchange stories and examine the nature of shared community. (Photo courtesy of Paul Kariya)


Special to the Westerly

Sept. 22 is the 32nd anniversary of Canada’s apology to Japanese-Canadians.

In the early 1930s the largest population of any ethnic or racial group on the west coast of Vancouver Island was Japanese-Canadians, especially in Ucluelet, where there were more than 400 people living in six settlements around the harbour (Hakoda Bay, Shimizu Bay, Bungi Bay, Sunahama, Fraser Bay and Spring Cove). Starting from around 1917, Japanese-Canadian fishermen started to troll out of Bamfield, Ucluelet, Tofino and Clayoquot and steadily their numbers grew, especially as they were pushed out of the Fraser River gillnet fishery. Discrimination fuelled federal and provincial government policies and the ouster of Japanese-Canadians from the Fraser. Shortly thereafter, even on the west coast, salmon trolling licences were restricted and limited in number. A residency requirement was introduced that led to wives and eventually families calling Ucluelet home.

Generally the populations in Ucluelet stayed to themselves but would gather at events like May Day and come together for boat races and sports days. Tragedy would also bring the communities together. Before the war, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lyche, pillars in the settler community, drowned but his body could not be found. After days of searching, Mr Shimizu, a tofu maker, recovered Norman’s body. It is told that he declined the $50 reward indicating to the Lyche family that a Japanese person could not accept any recompense in such a sad situation. At its peak the Japanese-Canadian community in Ucluelet had places of worship, education and commerce. It was Japanese-Canadian shipwrights and carpenters who built the school in Ucluelet (where the municipal offices are located today) for the larger community. The original Ucluelet Fishing Company was established by the Japanese-Canadian Fishermen’s Co-op and it bought fish from Japanese-Canadian, White and First Nations fishermen. On Dec. 7, 1942 Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and life was never the same for Japanese-Canadians in B.C. Within days, every adult of Japanese descent, regardless of nationality, had to register with the RCMP. The fishermen were ordered to turn their vessels in. In the storm of winter they took their boats down the coast to New Westminster. Within three months the women and children were told they had 24 hours to leave for Hastings Park in Vancouver, taking only what they could carry. From Hastings Park, people were assigned to internment centres located at least 100 miles inland from the coast.

My father took Marine K, which he had built at Kishi boatworks in Steveston when he was 19 and did as ordered. He sold his house on the beach before it could be confiscated. I knew none of this as a boy growing up in Ucluelet after the war. Our family returned in 1951 and Dad bought Jack Camp’s troller Linbe with a loan from B.C. Packers.

One day when we were in Refuge Cove tied up at the float my father pointed out a boat and said, “That used to be my boat.” To which I said, “what are you talking about?” but I dutifully walked to the end of the float and when I saw the name the penny dropped, the ‘K’. I ran back and asked my father to tell me the whole story. How could Canada have ordered 23,512 men, women and children, 70% who were Canadians and take their homes, boats, cars, farms, shops and their freedom? My father who was born in Canada ended up with 698 other men in a POW camp in Angler, Ont. My father’s transgression was that after leaving his boat in New Westminster, he had no place to go. He refused to show his ID card when confronted by the RCMP outside curfew on the streets of Vancouver. He was no national security risk, but the authorities wanted to teach an angry man a lesson. After two years they realized he was not a risk and asked him what he wanted to do. His request was to go marry his fiancee, who was in Greenwood and the authorities gave him a train pass to travel. After the wedding in May 1944 they were ordered to settle east of the Rocky Mountains and chose Toronto.

Canada destroyed the Japanese-Canadian community because it was at war with Japan and could use the pretext of war to remove people of Japanese ancestry from British Columbia. Under the cover of the War Measures Act what Canada did was perhaps technically lawful but certainly morally unjust. In fact, Canada also exiled 3,964 people to Japan – how could a country render its own citizens stateless?

We now know that the real motivations were racially driven.

Prior to COVID-19, Paul Kariya was working with the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society and others to host a workshop to bring together the First Nations, Japanese and White settler communities to reminisce, exchange stories and examine the nature of shared community, so stay tuned.

READ MORE: VIDEO: Tofino council apologizes for 1947 motion to ‘exclude Orientals’

READ MORE: Japanese Canadians call on B.C. to go beyond mere apology for historic racism

READ MORE: Japanese Canadian recounts life in B.C. internment camp