During the second World War, the government considered Canadians of Japanese origin to be security risks. Beginning in 1942, the government forcibly moved 22,000 men, women and children away from coastal areas in British Columbia and interned them in camps in the interior. The Japanese had few public defenders as wartime opinion formed against them. Muriel Kitagawa’s family was stripped of its possessions and relocated. She became a writer and activist. In this speech at a public meeting in 1945, she called for reparations and a change of heart among other Canadians.
I stand here tonight to plead with you, not for myself alone, but for all of us . . . It’s the rare person among us all, and I certainly include the Japanese people in this category, who will take time to worry over the affairs of other people less fortunate. We are much too busy with our own affairs to be bothered with what doesn’t seem to concern us except in a vague and general way. We leave such worries to our representatives who are paid to worry and to act for us. Sometimes we do not make an effort to choose people who will really help us, and we carelessly choose people who do more harm than good. But we shrug, and let it go at that. We can get used to nearly everything . . .
Some good came out of the evacuation, not because the evacuation was good, but because the people had in them the guts to make good after misfortune. Let us not be fooled for one minute by the fact that many of my people are better off today than ever before, because evacuation cut the ropes that tied us to a past. If they did not rise above their suffering, if they did not try to get the best out of a bad situation, these people would not be better off. The ones who are better off had families of vigorous young people out to rescue their family by their united efforts. They also had that quality which would not be defeated by tough luck. Some of those who are worse off than before are in that state because the children are too young yet to work, or the breadwinner is too old, or too broken in spirit, or not physically able to start from nothing again. These are pitiful cases in any language.
Should be reimbursed
The loss of a house, the loss of a few thousand dollars, the loss of a fishing boat, or a business, or a small shop . . . these items are big only in proportion to how much the victims could materially afford to lose. Many of my people actually need the return of their properties. They need badly the few hundreds or thousands of dollars that represent their loss, and it is only right that for their loss, since it was forced on them unjustly, they should be reimbursed.
But more than the return of lost property, reparation is the outward symbol acknowledging the loss of our rights. Time heals the details, but time cannot heal the fundamental wrong. My children will not remember the first violence of feeling, the intense bitterness I felt, but they will know that a house was lost through injustice. As long as restitution is not made, that knowledge will last throughout the generations to come . . . that a house, a home, was lost through injustice. It is important for you to remember that the loss of this property spelled the last indignity for a people deprived of the right to move freely, to live where they choose, to be what they can be best, deprived of participation in the life and events of their country, native or adopted, and deprived most of all of their integrity. Instead, it was taken for granted that we would be traitors given a chance . . .
Race-baiters were wrong
The race-baiters always ask you to see twenty-three thousand saboteurs, but any sensible person knows how ridiculous that figure is. More than half that number were children, and the older children would much rather wear a Canadian uniform than sabotage their own country, and most of the adults thought more of their children’s well-being and safety than the doubtful success of sabotage, and most of the adults wouldn’t even think of sabotage. When it was taken for granted that we would all commit sabotage if left alone, we felt such a disgust as you cannot imagine. It made us spit that anyone could think such a thing of us, and made us wonder if, after all, Canadians did not have faith in their system of liberal education and Christian teaching. If you do not have faith enough in your system to be assured that the Japanese children could not be trained into good Canadians, do you blame us if we feel ashamed for you? Because we had faith in that education, we had faith in the Christian teachings . . . and what happened? That faith let us down.
Faith in ourselves
What kept us afloat after the country let us down? Our faith in ourselves. We knew that our ideals and training were Canadian, even if you didn’t. We knew that we had only to live up to our training and keep our integrity and self-respect intact, unsmeared by your lack of faith. It was hard work. Sometimes we almost gave up the struggle. Sometimes we wondered why we shouldn’t get out and lick our sore wounds someplace else than here, but where could we go? To most of us, Japan is a foreign country full of all the things we learned to dislike, in spite of a lot of things that were good.
Still, through the strain and toil of a few enlightened people who gave their all towards securing us our lost freedom, we’ve managed to come through this far. On the way, we’ve lost dreams, and we’ve learned to distrust. We’ve also lost pride in Canada. But we know a deeper love for this, our native land, and would suffer much to stay here. Through bitterness we learned cynicism, and through frustration we gained new strength to fight for our rights . . .
Canada cannot be great until she is great. To that end, to be a great nation, Canada must destroy the virus of rot that affects our national life, and among other vices, race prejudice ranks high. It is the people, not the representatives, who can make this country great. For if all the people will not have corruptness in the governing of men, they will be sure to elect such people as would make greatness free, and secure in that freedom.
In 1998, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized to Japanese Canadian survivors and their families and announced a $300 million compensation package.
This Is My Own: Muriel Kitagawa, Talon Books, 1985, pp: 282-88