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Redeeming the War on the Homefront: Alberta's Japanese Community During the Second World War and After

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David ]. Goa

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryMost of the essays in this volume touch on service in the midst of “the terrors of history”. For many of the people who are the subject of these reflections, the service is, as the title suggests, "for king and country" whether or not this was conscious in their minds at the outset of the war. The terrors of history1 tend to bring out the best and the worst in human nature; so it is not surprising to find remarkable expressions of service and selflessness by so many men and women who responded to the call of their sovereign and country, who entered the fields of battle or served the war effort on the home front.

There are several other forms of service which we glimpse when we reflect on Canadians who found themselves the subject of the terrors of war, not because they had to face the enemy abroad, although there were Japanese, Italians and Germans alike who did serve in the Canadian forces, but because they were defined by the state as “the enemy within”. They were enemy aliens whether or not they were citizens by adoption or birth. They were enemy aliens because, as far too often happens in human affairs, the war set to flight common sense and made it mandatory that judgement be exercised solely on the grounds of race and national origin. War has a levelling effect and its terror tends to spread throughout society.

At the heart of this essay is an argument that the many Japanese women2 removed from the West Coast, beginning in February 1942 through the exercise of the War Measures Act, and resettled in Picture Butte and other towns of southern Alberta, were in service as well. Their service has also proven itself of singular value to Alberta and the civil life of Canada. What these women served, initially without the support or assistance of their husbands or older sons, was their children and the remnant of a shattered community. They were required by the particular way the terrors of history were being played out in their life in Canada to bring some modicum of stability to young lives, to work in the sugar beet fields for income and nurture the Japanese community's relationship with the farming community of southern Alberta, and slowly to build a new world in a country which had rejected them in the most thorough way. What I want to touch on are the cultural sources which contributed to the remarkable way the Japanese in Alberta put their world back together after it was so shattered. I will explore how two of these sources, the neo-Confucian value of family and the Buddhist insight into the fleeting character of life, made it possible for a group of Canadian citizens defined as “enemy aliens” to build a new community and nurture the civil life in the heartland of southern Alberta. The depth of Japanese cultural memory and the value formation of their religious faith and practice have been an unspoken source for the making of community.

The Japanese Communities of Southern Alberta

When the war broke out in 1939, there were 540 people of Japanese ancestry living in Alberta. Most of them were farmers and were well established citizens of Calgary, Raymond, Lethbridge, Taber, Hardieville and Redwater. A number of the young men of the Nisei, or second generation, saw the war as an opportunity to serve “King and Country” and to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada. In British Columbia the Nisei were refused when they attempted to join the army. If they were allowed to enlist, the argument went, they would be entitled to vote and given all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. In Alberta, however, the attitude was considerably different and seven Nisei enlisted in the army in 1940.3

Ann and David Sunahara4 argue that there was some fear in the Alberta Japanese community early in the war that their fledgling community, which had made Alberta their home for many years, would now start to receive the kind of hostile treatment they saw the German and Italian citizens of Alberta receiving. This fear proved groundless and the Calgary Herald and the Lethbridge Herald cautioned the public not to discriminate against Japanese-Albertans. The editor of the Calgary Herald wrote, in the rhetoric of the time, that “the yellow peril does not necessarily crouch under every yellow skin”, while the Lethbridge Herald reminded its readers of the contribution of the Japanese community to southern Alberta. Both newspapers argued that this community had supported the Red Cross over the years, and its leaders had made public declarations of loyalty to Canada.5

The attitude was very different in much of British Columbia, with its larger and quite prosperous Japanese community. The hostility that developed during the early years of the war culminated with the federal Cabinet order in February 1942, to remove every man, women and child of Japanese ancestry residing within 100 miles of the Pacific coast.6 Of course, this accounted for the vast majority of the Japanese citizens of Canada. Soon the British Columbia Security Commission was set up to administer the relocation of these communities, and it was under their auspices that many came to Alberta.

The Alberta sugar beet growers approached the Security Commission and requested the resettlement of Japanese families in Alberta, to work as labourers in the sugar beet fields. The shortage of manual labour due to the war, and a threatened strike by sugar beet workers, prompted W. F. Russell, secretary of the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers' Association, to make this request upon hearing in February 1942 of the Cabinet order to be administered under the War Measures Act. Here was an opportunity to get low-cost labour for the sugar beet fields, and perhaps a relatively attractive option for displaced Japanese as well.7


1. For a discussion of his ideas regarding “the terrors of history”, see Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, [New York: Harper and Row, 1963], passim.

2. Many women were evacuated to Alberta with their younger children on the understanding that they could be joined by their interned husbands and older sons at a somewhat later date. It fell to the women to work through the initial stage of resettling in Alberta and to lay the foundations for a new life. Canadian immigration policy, from its beginning in 1907, established a set of restrictions which made it very difficult for women to join their husbands.

3. Ann and David Sunahara, “The Japanese in Alberta”, in Howard and Tamara palmer, editors, Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity [Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985], p. 402. This is the finest essay on the history of the Japanese community in Alberta. I am indebted to it for many of the details and the historical argument of this section of the paper.

4. Ibid., pp. 394-412.

5. Ibid., p. 402.

6. See Ann Sunahara's extensive discussion of this act and its implications in The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians in World War II, [Toronto: Lorimer, 1981].

7. For a thorough account of the Alberta experience see David Iwaasa, Canadian Japanese in Southern Alberta, 1905-1945, [Research Paper, University of Lethbridge, 1972].

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