British Columbia

Dozens of letters by interned Japanese-Canadian teens donated to UBC

UBC has acquired nearly 150 letters written by young Japanese-Canadians interned in camps during the Second World War.

Letters written to Joan Gillis by school friends in camps across Canada reveal boredom, hard work, sadness

The collection contains 147 letters addressed to Surrey, B.C., resident Joan Gillis from her Japanese-Canadian friends, who were interned in 1942. (Matt Meuse/ CBC)

UBC has acquired nearly 150 letters written by young Japanese-Canadians interned in camps during the Second World War.

The letters, amounting to more than 300 pages, were written to Joan Gillis by friends she met at Queen Elizabeth Secondary in Surrey, B.C.

In early 1942, the Canadian government ordered people of Japanese descent living in B.C. to be removed from their homes and interned for the remaining duration of the war, during which time their homes and businesses were sold to keep the camps running. 

Gillis, then 13, had a handful of friends from the Japanese-Canadian community. They kept in touch with her throughout the wartime years and beyond, exchanging updates that are surprisingly familiar to Laura Ishiguro, an assistant professor of history at UBC.

"There's something really special about touching the past, touching the letters and reading them… then realizing simultaneously that you recognize yourself in the letter writer and that it's telling you something that you thought wasn't true," Ishiguro told On The Coast producer Matt Meuse.

Archivist Krisztina Laszlo holds a letter from one of Joan Gillis's school friends. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

She said the letters show the boredom these teens felt while living in the camps without the entertainment and social lives they were used to.

In one letter, a friend asks Gillis what music is on the popular radio program Your Hit Parade.

"The significance of that was that Japanese-Canadian people were not allowed to own radios… What that actually means for a teenage girl is she doesn't know what's cool.

"They care about stuff that gives us a totally different vision and reminds us that these are teenagers that certainly weren't plotting the downfall of this country," she said.

Krisztina Laszlo and Laura Ishiguro paged through the letters with On The Coast producer Matt Meuse at the UBC library. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Krisztina Laszlo, an archivist in the UBC library rare books and special collections, singled out a letter written by Gillis's friend Sumi Mototsune as an example of what the letters document. 

Mototsune was living in Raymond, Alta., at the time, working on a sugar beet farm:

Sept. 24, 1943

Dearest Joan,

Just a sheet with a few lines to say hello and how are you.

It's been quite a long time since I heard from you last and I hope you are all well as we are also.

I imagine you're going to school every day and enjoying your everyday life. That's swell!!!

Life is very dull out here. No school. No play.

Guess what??? It's beet topping season now. Think of us in the field pulling and topping beets while you're doing your geometry, social studies, et cetera. Will you Joan? And I'll think of you having a wonderful time while I work. ...

But I have so many things to tell you about the beets and everything out here, I don't think I could write everything I want to in the letter.

Well, I'm just wishing for the day you and me telling and hearing each other's stories for hours and hours of what we've missed. I only wish it would be soon, don't you think so Joan?

I'll write again, a longer letter, and I'll be waiting for yours every day.

Your friend as ever,


A postcard included with a letter from Gillis' friend working on a sugar beet farm in Raymond, Alta. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"I thought it encapsulated the boredom, the amount of work and labour that these kids had to do, the fact that they weren't in school, and that they really just missed their friends and wanted a normal life," Laszlo said.

The public can view the correspondence between Gillis and her friends by visiting Rare Book and Special Collections or by booking a tour with the library.

To hear the full segment listen to audio below:

With files from On The Coast