British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

75th anniversary of Japanese-Canadian internment camps echoes as fears of Islamophobia rise

Mary Kitagawa was only seven years old in 1942, but she remembers the moment a Mountie took her father from her as though it were a movie.

75 years ago this week,the federal government ordered the removal of Japanese-Canadians from the Pacific Coast

An older woman with white hair and red suit looks serious as she speaks.
Mary Kitagawa says her family was forced to endure years of internment and work camps around the time of the Second World War. (CBC)

Mary Kitagawa was only seven years old in 1942, but she remembers the moment a Mountie took her father from her as though it were a movie.

The gun in the RCMP officer's holster was right at her eye level. 

"When I saw that gun and the way he was manhandling my father, I thought for sure that he was being taken away to be shot," said Kitagawa, 85.

She and her three sisters ran after the truck yelling "Daddy! Daddy! Come back!"

Her mother stood near the house on their farm on Salt Spring Island, B.C., clinging tightly to their baby brother in her arms. 

"That was a very, very traumatic period in my life as a child."

Banished from the West Coast

It was 75 years ago this week when the federal government issued an Order in Council to remove Japanese-Canadians from a 160-kilometre area off the B.C. coast — a historic event that Kitagawa says has disturbing similarities to the treatment of Muslims in the United States today. 

The order targeted about 22,000 Japanese-Canadians who were labelled as "enemy aliens" despite many of them having lived in Canada for generations. 

The change was prompted by the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong in December 1941.But many groups say it was the result of long-standing resentment against the thousands of Japanese-Canadians in B.C. 

In 1967, CBC broadcast a look back at the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War:

Japanese internment in B.C.

6 years ago
Duration 3:36
CBC archive video showing Japanese Canadians who are forced to sell major assets and relocate to internment camps in B.C.’s Interior.

Shortly afterward Kitagawa's father was taken away, she and her family joined thousands of other Japanese-Canadians sent to Hastings Park in Vancouver to live in the livestock building at the PNE.

"My mother couldn't believe we were being led to live in that barn," she said.

"We could smell the urine and feces and we could feel the straw still underneath our feet."

Inside, the family found bunk beds tightly packed together, made up with straw mattresses with two grey army blankets. Maggots crawled through the floorboards. 

"There was nothing for us to eat that night," Kitagawa recalls of that day.

The livestock building of the PNE in Vancouver was filled with bunk beds to house thousands of Japanese-Canadians. (Vancouver Public Library)

Internment camps inland

The family was first sent to Greenwood, B.C., the site of a former copper mine, where they slept on the floor of the tiny shack, where they were forced to live. 

They had no idea there father was still alive when, one day, her mother received a letter from him.

Like hundreds of other Japanese-Canadian men, he had been assigned to do roadwork, getting paid 25 cents per hour, with room and board deducted. 

The letter explained that they could be reunited if he agreed to work on a beet farm in southern Alberta, where there was a labour shortage.

The attack on Pearl Harbour prompted the Canadian government to relocate 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent, 14,000 of whom were born in Canada. (CBC)

"We were so happy to be a family again," Kitagawa said.

But the family's situation on the beet farm in Magrath, Alta., was even more dire. 

Their home was a shack next to a pig pen, with no kitchen, beds or other facilities. They ate out of cans and drank water from the same ponds the animals lived in. 

"[My parents] decided that if we lived in that condition any longer, we would all perish," Kitagawa said. 

Many Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes along the West Coast and relocated to internment camps in the B.C. Interior and across Canada during the Second World War. (Tak Toyota/National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

'We were destitute'

The family bounced from one internment camp to the next in B.C.'s Slocan Valley, each seemingly worse than the last. 

In 1943, they found out the federal government had issued an order liquidating all property owned by Japanese-Canadians that has been in the government's custody. 

Their cherished farm and home on the West Coast had been sold. There would be nothing to return to.

"We were destitute," Kitagawa said. 

It wasn't until 1949, four years after the end of the war, that the order was lifted. Families like Kitagawa's never got their property back. 

The following video is a short documentary about Kitagawa, whose maiden name is Murakami, and her family:

The long journey home for a Japanese Canadian family

26 years ago
Duration 9:15
The Murakami family returns to Salt Spring Island to begin again.

Parallels today

Today, 75 years later, Kitagawa says she sees parallels between her experience and how Muslims are currently being treated in the U.S.

She says the first sign that troubled her was when President Donald Trump promised, during his election campaign, to force all Muslims in the U.S. to register with the government — just as the Canadian government had done with those of Japanese descent.

"It just sent shivers down my spine. I didn't think they could ever do a thing like that, but I guess with Trump you never know," she said. 

"Today, because of the different law and rules we have in Canada, I don't think this could happen again. But still, it's a frightening thought that it could.

"What has to happen is people like us who went through this terrible journey have to support these people who are being victimized right now."

In 1988, the Canadian Government officially apologized to Japanese-Canadians for what they experienced during the war. 

The long-awaited apology came with a $300-million settlement.

Canadian government apologizes to Japanese Canadians for wartime internment

35 years ago
Duration 4:30
A formal apology and compensation package are offered to the Japanese Canadian community.


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at