British Columbia·Photos

'Lost Fleet': Exhibit shows how racist policies devastated B.C.'s Japanese fishing community

Attitudes surrounding Canadian-Japanese internment reflect current sentiments towards refugees and immigrants, says exhibit's curator Duncan MacLeod.

Attitudes surrounding Japanese internment reflect current sentiments towards refugees and immigrants: curator

Fishermen's Reserve rounding up Japanese-Canadian fishing vessels on 10 Dec. 1941. (Library and Archives Canada)

Before the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians held the majority of fishing licenses along the B.C. coast.

But when Pearl Harbour was bombed in December of 1941, all of them were taken away.

"It was an extremely heavy blow," said museum curator Duncan MacLeod. "These fishermen had been in the industry, in some cases, for decades."

The impact of Canadian-Japanese internment on B.C.'s fishing industry is on full display in a new exhibit titled Lost Fleet at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. The showcase runs for a year and features a collection of artifacts, replicas, and images that shed light on a dark period in Canadian history.

: R.C.N. officer questioning Japanese-Canadian fishermen while confiscating their boat on 9 Dec. 1941. (Library and Archives Canada)

The lost fleet

It was 75 years ago when the federal government ordered Japanese-Canadians who lived within 160 kilometres of the B.C. coast to be relocated further inland. The order targeted about 22,000 Japanese-Canadians who were labelled as "enemy aliens" despite many of them having lived in Canada for generations. 

At the time, many worked as commercial fishermen. They were immediately targeted by the federal government in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbour.

"The Canadian navy began impounding their vessels," said MacLeod. "A total of 1,137 vessels were impounded over the course of the next several weeks."

"it was an extremely devastating impact," he added. "It was their main source of income, and the fishermen were extremely important part in the Japanese community."

In the days following Pearl Harbour, over 1,000 fishing vessels were seized by the Federal Government. (Library and Archives Canada)

Hidden in plain sight

Vancouver's Paul Kariya says the linkages to the lost fleet run through much of B.C.'s Japanese-Canadian community.

A Canadian sailor prepares to hoist the Union Jack on the expropriated Japanese-Canadian fishing boat KUROSHIMA NO.2, in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, on 29 December 1941. December 29, 1941. (Library and Archives Canada)

"Everybody has it in their heart, and knows of relatives who have been [affected]. It's pretty close and it's pretty current," he said.

He recalls learning how his family was hit hard by the discriminatory policy.

At the age of 12, Kariya stood on a dock with his father in Refuge Cove near Tofino. His father noticed a familiar old boat floating nearby.

His dad told him to read the name painted on the vessel. It read Marine K, with the K standing for Kariya. 

"I walked to the end of the dock and I came back and he said, 'that used to be my boat ...  I had it built in 1935 at the shipyards in Steveston. I was 19 — and it was taken away from me.'"

Ties to modern times

Models of the seized boats are featured prominently in Lost Fleet. Curator Duncan MacLeod says the goal of the exhibition is not only to educate viewers about a seminal moment in Canadian history, but also to reflect on the current political climate.

MacLeod says there are extremely strong parallels between the fear of Japanese-Canadians and current anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric spread through mass media.

"We want people to understand how easy it is for messages of fear and prejudice and racial bias can be spread — especially nowadays with social media."

"We want people to take away that we need to be aware of those pitfalls, and make sure that Canada remains an inclusive and just society."

An unidentified Japanese-Canadian fisherman sits quietly after his boat was interned on 8 Dec. 1941. ( Library and Archives Canada)

With files from CBC's On the Coast and North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: 'Lost Fleet': Exhibit shows how racist policies devastated B.C.'s Japanese fishing community