Japanese Canadians share stories of life in internment camps
'Very few Japanese Canadians talk about the internment experience,' says Terry Watada
*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.
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."
"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.
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.
- How I Wrote ItTerry Watada explores the dark history of Japanese-Canadian internment with novel The Three Pleasures
"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.
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