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Japanese Immigration to Alberta

Japanese people began immigrating to Canada in the 1870s. They were from poor fishing, farming, and labouring families who came looking for a better life. Some also came to escape conscription (mandatory military service) imposed in Japan. Most of the early immigrants were men who settled in British Columbia, finding work in fishing, mining, and forestry. Men in Canada began writing home to Japan to find wives. Photographs would be exchanged and a wedding ceremony performed in Japan, with someone else standing in for the groom. The bride would then cross the Pacific to meet her husband. The first Japanese woman arrived in Canada in 1887.

Labour contractors brought more than 1,000 Japanese to Alberta and found them employment constructing the railway or working in sugar beet fields. A group of Japanese people settled north of Lethbridge, in the town of Hardieville, where they worked in the coal mines. Still others set up farms in the Rocky Mountain House and Opal areas. Some Japanese immigrants began to find work as cooks, and one man started a restaurant in Medicine Hat. Others set up dry cleaning businesses where their wives would mend and adjust clothes. Many fancy hotels also hired Japanese bellhops, including the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton, the Palliser Hotel in Calgary, and the Banff Springs Hotel. By 1931, the Japanese population of Alberta was 652.

Japanese settlement in Raymond, a town located south of Lethbridge, was begun in 1903. By 1931, more than 400 Japanese people lived there; most of whom worked in the sugar beet fields. Although the majority of the people in the area were Mormon, most of the Japanese retained their Buddhist religion. They also set up facilities where they could teach their children traditional Japanese culture and martial arts. The Japanese in Alberta did not suffer much racial discrimination in the years before World War II. There were few Japanese in the province, and most of them did important and unpleasant work in the sugar beet fields and coal mines. First-generation Japanese immigrants are called Issei while second-generation people are known as Nisei.

Japanese in sugar beet field, southern Alberta

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Canada, who was then at war with Japan, panicked. People believed that the Japanese-Canadians were spies who would help Japan attack Canada. As a result, the Canadian government closed all Japanese language schools in British Columbia, impounded all Japanese boats, and implemented a curfew, forbidding Japanese people from being out of their homes after dark. In February 1942, the government announced the forced evacuation of all 21,000 people of Japanese heritage living within 100 miles (161 kilometres) of the Pacific Coast. As a result, 2,700 Japanese people were sent to Alberta where labourers were needed in the sugar beet fields. Many Albertans were upset by the idea of having more Japanese people in the province and held meetings where their opposition was directed not at the Japanese already in Alberta but at the new immigrants from British Columbia.

The Japanese who arrived in Alberta at this time were assigned to farms and not allowed to live in urban areas. They endured horrible living conditions and were forced to do hard physical labour in the sugar beet fields. Japanese-Albertans supported the newcomers, especially by helping them fight the law preventing family members to transfer farms in order to reunite. In September 1942, the restrictions placed on the Japanese-British Columbians were also applied to the Japanese-Albertans: their mail and telephone calls were censored, and they were forced to carry identity cards.

At the end of the war, Albertans wanted the Canadian government to remove the Japanese from Alberta. The Alberta Premier, Ernest Manning, felt the Buddhist Japanese could never be loyal citizens of a Christian Alberta, while labour organizations felt the Japanese would have negative effects on labour relations. Instead, the Canadian government auctioned the property and possessions of Japanese-British Columbians in an attempt to keep them from returning to British Columbia. Until 1949, there were also still restrictions as to where Japanese-Canadians could settle. A labour shortage in the sugar beet fields decided the issue, and Japanese-British Columbians were allowed to remain in Alberta. It was not until 1948, however, that they received the same rights as other Albertans.

As the years passed, the Japanese began to carve out a spot for themselves in the community. Many bought their own sugar beet farms while others became community leaders. Japanese practices, such as the observance of Obon, the Buddhist festival in memory of deceased friends and family, have been integrated into the overall cultures of their communities. The town of Raymond now celebrates Cemetery Day in honour of the Japanese festival.

As Canadian immigration policy began to open up, more Japanese came to Canada. These immigrants were well-educated people from urban areas who quickly found a place for themselves in the middle-class societies of Edmonton and Calgary. After World War II, intermarriage of Japanese people with other Albertans has been high, exceeding 80 percent at some points. The tightly-knit communities have begun to disappear and many Japanese live in urban areas. As of the 2001 census, 9,950 people of Japanese origin lived in Alberta.

Many third-generation Japanese-Canadians have fought to achieve redress from the Canadian government for the events that occurred during World War II. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued a formal apology on behalf of the Canadian government for the seizure of property and for the disenfranchisement of Japanese-Canadians.


Takata, Toyo. Nikkei Legacy: The Story of Japanese Canadians from Settlement to Today. Toronto: NC Press Limited, 1983.

Albertans — Who Do They Think They Are: Japanese

Statistics Canada: Population by selected ethnic origins, by province and territory (Alberta)

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