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Asian Heritage Month: Understanding the Japanese Internment Experience

Last week, we learned about the Chinatown neighborhoods that existed in Toronto since the late 19th century. Today, however, we are going to highlight an overlooked but important event in Canadian history: the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. The context behind this unfortunate chapter in our history will be examined, in addition to spotlighting some books that you can borrow from the library to help you to better understand this crucial topic.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, as well as the attacks on Canadian troops in Hong Kong on December 7th, 1941, shocked and appalled people both in Canada and the United States. In a very real way, the war had come to the shores of North America. In retaliation for this act, the Canadian government chose to invoke the War Measures Act to dispossess and incarcerate 21,000 Japanese Canadians. Many of them were relocated to ghost towns in the interior of B.C., but some were sent to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta or to prisoner of war camps. In 1943, a federal Order-in-Council officially seized all property that was owned by Japanese people on behalf of the Canadian government. Farms, homes, and businesses were all sold, and the proceeds were “used to pay the costs of detaining Japanese Canadians.”[1]

Figure 1: People buying goods at a Japanese Canadian internment camp, c. 1942. Photo from Library & Archives Canada.

After the war, the Canadian government encouraged people of Japanese descent to either move back to Japan, or to go to other Canadian provinces apart from British Colombia. In 1946, about 4,000 former internees chose to go back to Japan, which had been devastated by the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made an official apology for the actions of the Canadian government in 1988, in addition to signing an agreement compensating Japanese Canadians for the seizure of their property as well as being interned in camps against their will.

[1] Marsh, James H. (2020, November 12). “Japanese Canadian Internment: Prisoners in their Own Country”. From The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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