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More than 70 years after racism and wartime hysteria devastated their community, Japanese Canadians are still fighting for justice.

They’ve launched a campaign called BC Redress with the aim of getting the British Columbia provincial government to formally acknowledge its role in the internment of their community during World War II.

About 22,000 Japanese Canadians — most of them Canadian citizens living in the country’s westernmost province — were sent to internment camps in 1942 and had their property and businesses confiscated. The provincial legislature passed a motion of apology in 2012, but Japanese Canadians say that isn’t enough.

“It does not acknowledge that the government of British Columbia had any responsibility for what happened,” notes the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association (GVJCCA). The association also points out that the apology was made without any input from the community.

That led the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) in 2017 to ask B.C. Premier John Horgan to set up discussions between the provincial government and the NAJC and provide support for community consultations.

The first community consultation session was held on June 15 at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. Consultations will continue through July 24 at various locations and via video conferences.

The plan is to come up with specific recommendations for initiatives to follow up on the 2012 apology, according to the GVJCCA, which held an information meeting on June 23 in Vancouver to bring people up to speed on the process.

NAJC President Lorene Oikawa said truth and reconciliation mean listening to people and hearing their stories.

“Otherwise, how can you apologize?” she said, adding that the information collected during the consultations will be presented to the B.C. government.

Oikawa said there’s more to BC Redress than rectifying past wrongs.

“There’s now this culture of hate,” she said, referring to white supremacism and other forms of racism. “As a group, we can be very powerful and speak out against that hate.”

And she pointed out that part of BC Redress’s mission is to show that the internment was preceded by a raft of racist legislation aimed at Japanese Canadians and other minorities.

“Make no mistake — racism didn’t start in 1942,” Oikawa said.

Those attending the meeting stressed the need to deal with the trauma arising from the internment and dispersal of the community. “We didn’t live through the trauma, but we have been impacted by it,” said a woman who described herself as a fourth-generation Japanese Canadian.

Also attending the meeting were members of the Chinese Canadian, black and indigenous communities, who expressed solidarity with BC Redress.

The campaign to obtain formal recognition by the B.C. government of its role in the internment is the latest chapter in the fight for redress.

Japanese Canadians were interned and their property was confiscated following Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the British colonies of Malaya and Hong Kong, and Canada’s subsequent declaration of war on Japan.

Nearly 2,000 Canadian troops took part in the defense of Hong Kong. Their harsh treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors after the colony fell on Dec. 25, 1941, may well have fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in Canada. But Oikawa pointed out that Japanese Canadians had nothing to do with the war crimes of the Japanese military — and that anti-Japanese sentiment was nothing new on Canada’s west coast.

In 1942, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act to strip Japanese Canadians of their civil rights — despite police and military officials saying the community posed no threat to national security. They were labeled “enemy aliens” and dealt with as “persons of Japanese racial origin.” Japanese Canadians from B.C. were interned, and their homes and businesses were confiscated.

In August 1944, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King announced that they had to move east of the Rocky Mountains or be repatriated to Japan after the war. By 1947, many Japanese Canadians had been granted exemption to this enforced no-entry zone. It wasn’t until April 1, 1949, that they were granted freedom of movement and could move back to the coast.

On Sept. 22, 1988, a Redress Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NAJC President Art Miki. Mulroney described the treatment of Japanese Canadians as morally and legally unjustified, and called on Canadians to face up to the historical facts of the internment, property seizure and disenfranchisement. He pledged that such injustices would never again be countenanced or repeated in Canada.

Victims of the internment were each awarded 21,000 Canadian dollars (about ¥1.75 million using the current exchange rate), the criminal records of those convicted of violating the War Measures Act were expunged, and the citizenship of Japanese Canadians exiled to Japan was restored. Funds were also provided to help rebuild community infrastructure and to establish the Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

The BC Redress campaign is not seeking financial compensation for individual victims. Thirty-one years after the redress by the federal government, only a few are still alive.

“Though there is only a dwindling number of victims directly affected by internment, the NAJC and Japanese Canadian community members strongly believe that it is a critical time to capture their voices and experiences,” the NAJC says. “Achieving justice and closure to this dark chapter in BC’s history will signify a most meaningful outcome for all British Columbians, and indeed Canadians more widely, to ensure this injustice is never again committed in Canada.”

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