British Columbia

Japanese-Canadian WW I veterans, once forgotten, remembered by new plaque

A new plaque unveiled in Stanley Park celebrates the patriotism of Japanese-Canadian veterans who fought in the Great War — only to be denied the right to vote in B.C., and were later interned during World War II.

Unveiling in Stanley Park celebrates Japanese-Canadian WW I vets, who were denied the right to vote in B.C.

The plaque unveiled at the Stanley Park Pavilion commemorates the forgotten Japanese-Canadian soldiers who served in World War I.

When Masumi Mitsui wanted to fight for Canada during the Great War, the B.C. government wouldn't let him.

The Japanese-born aspiring soldier was not recognized as an equal citizen in the province, so he travelled to Alberta — one of the few provinces that allowed Japanese-Canadians to enlist.

Sgt. Masumi Mitsui was one of the first Asian-Canadians to vote in the Province of British Columbia and he was one of the last surviving Japanese-Canadian soldiers who served in The Great War. (CBC)

He would go on to fight in the iconic Battle of Vimy Ridge and lead 35 soldiers in Battle of Hill 70.

A new plaque unveiled at Stanley Park in Vancouver remembers Sgt. Mitsui's dedication and patriotism — alongside the 227 other brave Japanese-Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War.

The bronze plaque is now an official Canadian monument and serves to remember a group of soldiers who were largely forgotten.

When the surviving soldiers returned home to B.C. after the war, the province denied them the right to vote — a right they hoped they would be awarded through their service.

"Their main goal all along was to fight for citizenship, which included the right to vote," said David Mitsui, the sergeant's grandson.

'A national historic event'

Sgt. Mitsui and the B.C. soldiers formed their own branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, and began lobbying for the right to vote in the province.

In 1931, after over a decade of tireless campaigning directed towards the B.C. legislature, the small group of veterans became the first group of Asian Canadians to vote in the province.

"The plaque is to identify that act of getting the right to vote as a national historic event," he said.

The 175th Overseas Battalion, assembled in 1916. (CBC)

The unveiling of the plaque was led by David Mitsui, Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry, and Japanese Canadian War Memorial Committee chair Linda Reid. It was met by widespread applause from Japanese-Canadian veterans.

The final line of the bronze plaque reads: "Through their courage and resolve, these veterans expanded the concept of patriotism and advanced the development of citizenship rights in Canada."

David Mitsui is the grandson of Sgt. Masumi Mitsui, a Japanese-Canadian war veteran who campaigned for the right to vote in British Columbia. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

These rights took time. Ten years after Sgt. Mitsui was awarded the right to vote, his property was dispossessed by the Canadian government and he was sent to an internment camp.

Mitsui passed away in 1987, one year before the Canadian government apologized for Japanese internment.

He was the last surviving Japanese-Canadian First World War veteran.

The plaque is a national monument. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)