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The Japanese Community

540 Japanese-Canadians resided in Alberta at the outset of the war – most farmed in the southern regions of the province. They had worked hard to overcome many prejudices and to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada. Many within the Japanese community viewed the Second World War as an opportunity to reaffirm that loyalty to their adopted country.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour changed the lives of almost every Japanese-Canadian. Newspapers urged calm and asked citizens not to discriminate against their Japanese-Canadian brethren and to differentiate between those who had committed the act of war on the United States and those who had lived peacefully and productively among other Albertans. Despite these and other efforts it was not long before Japanese-Canadians were looked upon with the same suspicion as German- and Italian-Canadians.

Many Japanese-Canadians, displaced from their homes on orders from the federal government, found work in the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta. The provincial government opposed the arrival of these individuals and demanded their removal at the end of the war. Albertans tolerated those Japanese-Canadians who had lived in the province for decades but were initially vehemently opposed to the arrival of those forced from their homes in British Columbia.

Those individuals who opted to come to Alberta from British Columbia were told they would be granted decent housing, increased freedoms, and a moderate standard of living. This was not the case as many families lived in sub-standard housing or shelters such as granaries or chicken coops, and often were without basic amenities such as fresh water. Those who were assigned to work on sugar beet farms were told they could not leave the premises. Municipalities passed ordinances prohibiting Japanese from moving to their towns.

Ninety percent of those forcibly removed from their homes in British Columbia were impoverished by the spring of 1943. Unable to find work during the harsh winter, the Japanese turned to Seiku Sakamoto. Sakamoto had been the English-language secretary of the Japanese Camp and Mill Workers' Union prior to the war. In Alberta, he arranged for the Japanese to join a vegetable growers' cooperative and he helped them form a beet workers' association. The Alberta Sugar Beet Workers' Association sought to improve the rights of workers and fought against the imposition of school fees targeting Japanese-Canadian students.

Not surprisingly the Japanese-Canadians and Nationals forced from their homes on the West Coast found their greatest support among their brethren who had resided in Alberta for many years. These individuals helped them find work, start new farming operations and establish temples (Buddhist) for prayer and contemplation. Resident Japanese-Albertans were soon placed under the same level of scrutiny as those arriving from British Columbia. They could no longer travel freely, requiring a permit if they wished or needed to travel more than 19.3 kilometres (12 miles) from their home. Meanwhile, their phone calls and mail were subject to stringent supervision and censorship.

The federal government was faced with the problem of what to do with displaced Japanese-Canadians once the war ended. British Columbia’s government was adamantly opposed to Japanese-Canadians returning to the coast. In Alberta, numerous civic groups, including the Union of Alberta Municipalities and the Alberta Federation of Labour, lobbied for the removal of Japanese-Canadians. In the end, it was the labour shortages in the sugar beet industry that persuaded Premier Manning to allow Japanese-Canadians to remain in Alberta and work the fields. Not until 1948 were Japanese-Canadian residents of Alberta entitled to the same rights and privileges as other Albertans.

Editor's Note

For more on this particular topic, read "Redeeming the War on the Homefront: Alberta's Japanese Community during the Second World War and After" by David J. Goa.

Reference

Sunahara, Anne and David. “The Japanese in Alberta”, in Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity, eds. David and Tamara Palmer. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.


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