Japanese Canadians share stories of life in internment camps

Eighty years ago this week, Japanese Canadians in British Columbia were forced into internment camps by the federal government. It wasn't until 1949 that they were accepted back into B.C. Three generations of Japanese Canadians tell the story of these years and their aftermath.

'Very few Japanese Canadians talk about the internment experience,' says Terry Watada

Japanese Canadians were forced by the federal government to relocate to internment camps in British Columbia’s interior, 1942. (Jack Long, National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

*This two-part documentary originally aired on IDEAS in 1988.

On February 24th, 1942, the cabinet of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued an order that ultimately led to the internment of 21,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry.

Japanese Canadians up and down Canada's west coast sold off what they could to their white neighbours, often at a fraction of the value. They entrusted their homes, land, stores and boats to the care of the government which then went on to sell those belongings to pay for the internment. 

An Internment camp for Japanese Canadians in British Columbia, June 1945. (Jack Long, National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

Terry Watada's parents and older brother lived that traumatic history of dispossession and forced confinement. But it was a history that remained hidden from Terry until he was 19 years old.

He was born after his family had been released from the camps and forced to move "east of the Rockies" as ordered by the federal government. They eventually came to Toronto where Terry was born.

But life before Toronto was shrouded in "a conspiracy of silence", as Terry puts it. 

"Very few Japanese Canadians talked about the internment experience, especially to the third generation — my generation," said Watada.

His parents never told him of the brutal racism they experienced.

"They said, 'well, we don't want to burden our children with this knowledge' and they wanted us to grow up as Canadian only."

Terry remembers helping to set up a photo exhibition in the late 60s or early 70s about Japanese Canadian life. It was put together by students at the University of British Columbia. He says what he saw in those photos changed everything.

Loyalty to the British Empire was taught to second and third-generation Japanese children in the internment camps of British Columbia, 1942. (Jack Long, National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

"These stark black and white pictures, many of them from the National Archives, as well as the archives in B.C. It was just stunning to me." He remembers especially the "primitive shacks laden with heavy snow and ice." He says this newly-understood history soon became the centre of his life.

Terry Watada would go on to become a novelist, playwright, poet, and musician. He would spend a lifetime collecting the stories of Japanese Canadians from both before and after internment. In 1988, he collaborated on a documentary with IDEAS that centred the stories of survivors and their struggle to once again find peace in a country they called home but had declared them enemies.

The Three Pleasures by Terry Watada is set in 1940s Vancouver. The novel is narrated by a young reporter working for the only Japanese Canadian newspaper allowed to keep publishing during the war. (Tane Akamatsu)

Terry says the story of what happened to Japanese Canadians has faded from Canada's collective memory but this chapter in the nation's history needs to be remembered. It's relevant in a time when democracy is under threat and concerns about national security can and do lead to all kinds of targeting of minorities.

"I think it reminds people that democracy is fragile and that it can change in a heartbeat. I think that's useful and should be a reminder. People have to be very cautious." 

*This episode was originally produced by Damiano Pietropaolo and updated by Naheed Mustafa.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?