REMEMBRANCE DAY: January 1, 1942: a low point for Canadian morale

Japanese Canadian fishermen having their boat confiscated by a Royal Canadian Navy Officer, 1941. (Library and Archives Canada photo)Japanese Canadian fishermen having their boat confiscated by a Royal Canadian Navy Officer, 1941. (Library and Archives Canada photo)
Edward Walter John Lee was mayor of Duncan as the Second World War dragged on. His season’s greetings attempted to cheer citizens for the days ahead. He was also part of the Duncan council that urged the Prime Minister of Canada to intern all those of Japanese descent. (City of Duncan photo)Edward Walter John Lee was mayor of Duncan as the Second World War dragged on. His season’s greetings attempted to cheer citizens for the days ahead. He was also part of the Duncan council that urged the Prime Minister of Canada to intern all those of Japanese descent. (City of Duncan photo)
An internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, 1945.(Jack Long/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada photo)An internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, 1945.(Jack Long/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada photo)
Japanese Canadians being relocated in B.C., 1942. (Library and Archives Canada photo)Japanese Canadians being relocated in B.C., 1942. (Library and Archives Canada photo)

By T.W. Paterson

If there was truly a low point in Canadian morale during the Second World War it must have been at the start of the third year of hostilities, Jan. 1, 1942.

Since September 1939 — for almost two-and-a-half years — those at home, and those at war on land and sea and in the air, had seen little but withdrawal and defeat before the seemingly unstoppable German onslaughts. Only two ‘miracles’ to date, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had given any real cause for joy, let alone real hope, to the beleaguered island nation and its scattered dominions.

But 1942 began just three weeks after Japan’s entry into the conflict on the side of the Axis powers with its devastating attack on Pearl Harbour. The war was no longer “over there” but virtually on our doorstep. For the first time British Columbians realized that they, too, were vulnerable to attack by sea and air.

Coincidentally, Jan. 1 was the weekly publication day for the Cowichan Leader. As is to be expected its entire front page and editorials were war related, beginning with a photo of a young airman, Pilot Officer Harold Bischlager, RCAF, of Shawnigan, who’d been killed in action over Brest, France on Dec. 18. He was just 20.

The new year began with sunny days and frosty nights and as, perhaps, also is to be expected, Cowichan churches had been filled with worshippers at Sunday services. Most of those churchgoers, according to the newspaper, were motivated “with the desire to pray for the safety of loved ones and friends bearing arms in all parts of the British Empire, and for God’s guidance in days of anxiety, with the war clouds daily drawing nearer…”

All the churches had been decorated with holly, cedar boughs, berried shrubs, ivy, miniature Christmas trees and, in some cases, with white chrysanthemums on the altars.

A year before, the Leader had published the names of 628 Cowichan men and women serving their country in uniform; this year the total had grown by a third, to 868. As had been the case during the First World War, when Duncan had the highest enlistment per capita in Canada, there wasn’t a single resident who didn’t have a family member, friend or acquaintance in the military or in other war related service. Already, 18 of them had been posted as killed or missing.

Keeping track of casualties, transfers and promotions, noted the editor before listing those already “killed, died or missing”, was an ongoing and difficult task. For readers, it must have been a weekly ordeal to read of the latest casualties, many of whom would have been known to them.

On a more or less optimistic note the front page of the New Year’s Day edition contained upbeat messages from civic officials. Duncan Mayor E.W. Lee wished everyone Season’s Greetings and thanked them for their untiring efforts during the past year to relieve suffering in the world, and he expressed sympathy for the families of those who’d made the supreme sacrifice. He hoped that the New Year would “find us more determined to do our part in bringing about the final victory that will bring peace and freedom to all those being held in cruel bondage and slavery”.

North Cowichan Reeve D.D. Chapman strayed from his usual New Year’s Message to promote adherence to Air Raid Precaution practices by blacking out at least two rooms in one’s home and pulling over to the side of the road and shutting off the headlights during an emergency. “The war has seemed to most of us to be a long way off, but we are faced with the fact that the war is now here.” he wrote. “Above all things, should an alarm come, keep cool, do not get excited; they have taken it in England and so can we if it comes. We hope it will not come.”

The “sleeper” article on the Jan. 1, 1942 front page of The Leader is buried beneath the fold and bears the headline, “City Wires Premier to Intern All Japanese.’”

At its final meeting of the year — just three weeks after Pearl Harbour — Duncan council had unanimously agreed to send a telegram to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Signed by Mayor E.W. Lee and Aldermen James Greig, William Evans and G.H. Savage, it read; “New Year’s greeting to yourself and Mr. Churchill. Wish to emphasize Japanese menace here is counterpart to that before Pearl Harbour outrage. Request all Japanese be interned immediately. Public opinion demanding action.”

That done, council turned to the more mundane matters of building permits and fire prevention.

Three-quarters of a century later, the internment of all Japanese citizens in B.C. remains controversial. Because of this continuing contention and its immense historical significance the resulting editorial in The Leader, headlined “The Japanese Question,” is worthy of being quoted in full.

“B.C newspapers carry a whole host of letters advocating that sterner measures than those now known be applied to the tremendously serious problem of dealing with the Japanese population in our midst. Duncan and other city councils ask for their internment.

“So does the federal member for Nanaimo, Lt. Alan Chambers, M.P. He agrees with their exclusion from livelihoods on the seas and urges that the Government go much farther. He would have them excluded from woods and mills and vocations in which there are opportunities for treachery, including the preparation of foodstuffs.

“He would consider all — naturalized or not — as Japanese citizens and would arrest or detain all males of military age who are regarded by the Japanese Government as Japanese citizens. He would have them put to roadbuilding in areas remote from this coast. He advocates putting the Japanese out of the industrial and commercial life of the Province and keeping them out with a view thereby to provide jobs for returned men.

“We are at war and there is much that we do not know. However, the suggestion of The Daily Colonist that radio facilities be denied Japanese in B.C. is some evidence that government handling of this matter might be improved.

“It may be advanced again that nationals of other countries with whom we are at war are allowed to remain among us with little restriction, Why, then, pick on the Japanese?

“If you, a Canadian, were born in Japan of the second or third generation, would you be any the less Canadian? There are some, and we hope there are many Japanese, particularly of Canadian birth, whose loyalty to Canada is genuine. But this is war and the safety of Canada is at stake. Here, as elsewhere, the innocent have to suffer with the guilty.

“What distinguishes the Japanese from every other race is their intense love of country. Their emperor is looked upon as a descendant from heaven itself! Japanese schools have been allowed to continue that teaching in our own midst.

“We cannot blame them. We could with advantage, copy some of their loyalty. Commonsense indicates that we cannot take chances. There may be 25,000 Japanese to deal with here now. They must be dealt with fairly and more fully than is the case to date. The matter calls for consideration and action by the Ottawa Government.”

It’s not for us, today, with the luxury of hindsight, to fault British Columbians who feared the presence of thousands of Japanese, many of whom worked in the mobile fishing industry, on a coastline that had suddenly become a possible war zone. National security was indeed at stake, the potential for a fifth column did exist.

The crux of the issue, 75 years later, is not so much that the Internment was put into effect but the way in which it was done and whether in fact it was motivated solely by fear of Japan’s entry in the war, or whether it was as much the legacy of decades of simmering racism.

Like the Chinese, Japanese immigrants and their descendants had never been fully accepted into the prevailing European (white) culture. More so than the Chinese, the Japanese were envied and resented for their work ethic and for their living adjacent to but not within communities as a whole. (This, ironically, was dictated as much by exclusion as by choice.)

MP Chambers gives a hint of this with his advocating that the Japanese be removed “from the industrial and commercial life of the Province and keeping them out with a view thereby to provide jobs for returned men.” (My italics—TW.)

The editor of The Leader said they must be dealt with fairly — but “this is war and the safety of Canada is at stake. Here, as elsewhere, the innocent have to suffer with the guilty.”

In short, every Japanese man, woman and child, regardless whether they were born here or were naturalized citizens, was a threat to national security.

Which brings us to how the Internment was implemented. Entire families were rounded up in army trucks for transportation; in the case of those living on the Island, by ferry to Vancouver. There, allowed a single suitcase of personal possessions each, they were herded into cattle stalls in the PNE building before being shipped out to spend the duration in old, semi-derelict houses and buildings left over from the mining days in Interior ghost towns or, later, in specially-built Tashme.

Their personal properties and businesses were seized by the federal government and sold off at auction at fire sale prices, the monies accrued being applied to their confinement. Many British Columbians profited immensely from this exercise in national security.

The result for Japanese Canadians at war’s end was poverty, homelessness and coercive attempts by the government to induce them to ‘return’ to a war-ravaged Japan which few of them had ever known.

To those who, today, accept that the Internment was a necessary if unfortunate act of war, who believe that British Columbia’s security was at stake, so be it. But reality argues otherwise: security considerations aside, the Japanese Internment was a travesty that victimized thousands of British Columbia citizens who’d never been accepted by British Columbians as a whole because they were of alien origin and of a visible minority.

They didn’t belong and they had to go. Quite simply, Pearl Harbour provided the excuse with which to indulge generations of resentment.

Footnote: One of the Island’s largest Japanese communities was in Chemainus. That ended, of course with the Internment and a final outburst of patriotic fervour, the desecration of their section of the Chemainus cemetery. Only in recent years was this acknowledged with the erection of a monument and plaque.

For more from T.W. Paterson, check out

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