This week (Dec. 7, 2016) marks 75 years since the Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon after, in this country, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Cabinet called for the wartime evacuation of Japanese Canadians, showing just how easily liberty can be revoked.

February 24, 1942 changed everything for Japanese Canadians. On that day, 12 weeks after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s Cabinet passed an order-in-council under the War Measures Act that decreed for reasons of national security, the nearly 22,000 people of Japanese ancestry (75 per cent of them Canadian citizens) living within 100 miles (160 kilometres) of the Pacific coast must be relocated. The military and the RCMP had, however, quietly advised the government that Japanese Canadians were not considered a significant risk.

The real motivation for the order was racism. Influential politicians in British Columbia had pressed the senior government to act. Beginning in 1895, Canadians of Chinese, East Indian and Japanese heritage were not allowed to vote in the province, a situation that also denied them a federal vote and kept them out of certain professions. In fact, they were expected to work at menial jobs for legally sanctioned low pay. Under the War Measures Act, the federal government’s “Custodian of Enemy Alien Property” seized and sold for a pittance, the homes, fishing boats and personal property of Japanese Canadians. Family members were often separated and sent to work or family camps within the province or to farms in Alberta, Manitoba or Ontario.

Frank Moritsugu, 89, of Toronto, points out that no other ethnic groups, including German and Italian, were mass evacuated. Soon after the Cabinet’s decision, his landscaper father was sent from their home in the Kitsilano neighbourhood of Vancouver to the Yellowhead railroad construction camp in B.C. near Jasper, Alta. Moritsugu and his younger brother, Ken, 18, were soon working at a highway construction camp near Revelstoke and by September, his mother and six other siblings were interned – in tarpaper shacks – at Tashme, a family camp (where his father joined them) near Hope, B.C. Their Kitsilano home was expropriated and sold.

After 14 months, concerned about the children’s education (the provincial government refused to provide schooling for evacuees) Moritsugu’s parents opted to go to St. Thomas, Ont., where they worked on the large farm of Mitch Hepburn, former premier of the province. (Moritsugu points out that many younger people had good memories of the camps since mothers and volunteer teachers worked hard to make life as normal as possible for them.) The older sons were allowed to join the family in Ontario since they were all leaving British Columbia.

But the humiliation hadn’t ended. There was the despised registration card all Japanese Canadians (16 and older) had to carry; they had to ask permission of the RCMP to travel 50 miles from home; and even Toronto had a quota on jobs for Japanese Canadians. And Moritsugu still could not vote – or join the military.

In 1945, however, the British and Australian armies needed interpreters to deal with captured Japanese soldiers. Suddenly, the Canadian Army quietly began recruiting among Japanese Canadians. Moritsugu quickly volunteered and became a sergeant with the Canadian Army Intelligence Corps, serving as an interpreter-translator attached and working with Special Force 136, a British counterintelligence unit. No one thought to test the Canadians until they got to India, he says. (He passed the test, although most didn’t.)

Incredibly, after the war, nearly 4,000 Japanese Canadians, many of them Canadian-born, were deported to post-war Japan in 1946 – the result of another order-in-council. It was repealed in 1947 but the wartime restrictions on the Japanese Canadian wouldn’t be completely lifted until 1949. Frank Moritsugu could finally stop carrying his hated registration card. (He would become a successful journalist with the Toronto Star and Maclean’s Magazine – the first Japanese Canadian to do so.)

Japanese Canadians organized, asked for and finally received redress on September 22, 1988, when then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made a formal apology in Parliament for the injustice. “I never felt that I wasn’t a full Canadian citizen,” Moritsugu says, “but this was the first time I felt that other people were going to realise this.”

Survivors were awarded a sum of $21,000 as symbolic compensation, something Moritsugu felt was necessary to have an impact on Canadians. But he adds, “The amazing amount of individuals and organisations that supported the redress campaign really said an awful lot.”

“Japanese Canadians on the whole do not think of themselves as victims. They are survivors,” Moritsugu notes. It’s a cultural attitude passed down from Japanese-born parents: “That’s what life is and I’m going to hang on and get over it and therefore survive.”

But survivors of the evacuation won’t have to face such a situation again, he says, so he warns younger generations to watch out on behalf of others who might be targeted as scapegoats. “We should be among the first ones to help. For people of my vintage, that thought never really left us. The National Association of Japanese Canadians does and should pay attention when there are other forms of racism that show up for anybody else,” he says.

Originally published on February 24, 2012.