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WATARI DORI: A Bird of Passage
The Japanese Evacuation and Internment

Irene Tsuyuki is a second generation Japanese Canadian. She was born in Vancouver near the heart of the Japanese Community of Powell Street where her father, who immigrated from Japan in the early 1900s, had a shoe repair shop. Irene's memories are infused with typical girlish hues. She remembers Strathcona public school and piano lessons that her mother enrolled her in, instead of ballet. But life's daily routine was shattered when World War II broke out in 1941.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong. Twelve weeks later the Canadian federal government used the War Measures Act to order the removal of all Japanese Canadians residing within 100 miles of the Pacific coast. They had been prompted to do so by B.C. politicians who had long been looking for an excuse to rid the province and Canada of the Japanese minority(1).

At the time, the government claimed that Japanese Canadians were being removed for reasons of "national security." The removal order, however, was opposed by Canada's senior military and police officers who said that the Japanese Canadians posed no threat to Canada's security. No Japanese Canadian was ever charged with disloyalty to Canada(2). And the evacuation didn't happen immediately after the war began, nor was it carried out at an urgent pace: it began in the summer of 1942 and wasn't completed until October 31, close to eleven months after the beginning of the war. This slow removal hardly suggested a military emergency or that Japanese Canadians posed such an acute threat to national security(3).

The evacuation was huge and heart-breaking. Over 20,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry were removed from their homes. They were processed through a temporary camp at the Pacific National Exhibition Grounds in Vancouver and shipped to detention camps in the interior of B.C., or to sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Allowed only to take a few essential possession, Irene Tsuyuki and her family were moved to the relocation community of Tashme. The name came from the first two letters of the board-member's surnames: Taylor, Shearer and Meighen. It was a community of about 2,000, where residents lived in tar paper shacks and apartments that were more like barns, each about 14x24 feet and shared by two families.

Irene thinks the experience was probably more traumatic for her parents than for herself; as a teenager, she was able to make even such a horrendous situation into an adventure. For her father it would have been humiliating. He had worked since his teens to build a new life for himself in Canada. His thirty years of labour was reduced to nothing, erased, when the federal government sold off all Japanese-Canadian-owned property: homes, farms, fishing boats, businesses and personal property at bargain basement prices. What was even worse, the government then deducted the proceeds of these sell-offs to pay for any welfare received by the owner while unemployed in a detention camp(4). Irene remembers that her father was keenly aware of his net worth -- he had a residence, a small hotel and two other pieces of property. When the Security Commission sold it all and sent him the paltry cheque, it was the first time she saw her father in tears.

Many Canadians were very much dismayed, if not shocked, at the federal government's treatment of the Japanese Canadians. People reached out, often through Anglican, Catholic, United and Quaker churches, to help the Japanese Canadians in whatever way they could. Winifred Awmack was among those who went to teach or minister at internment schools and churches. Winifred was asked to teach high school because the government was only providing public school education at the internment camps. It was here that Winifred Awmack met Irene Tsuyuki as her student.

Awmack felt that if the Japanese Canadian children didn't have a high school education they would always be second class citizens. And so, despite the lack of facilities, a curriculum was set up designed not only to educate, but to comfort and to strengthen students emotionally bruised by being considered enemy aliens by their country of birth. Each Saturday, for example, the school was broken into small groups to discuss any problems or confusions. Many students probably weren't able to communicate their feelings to their parents. The school sessions gave them a chance to express their anxieties, share the burden and to keep hope that there would be a better life after Tashme.

When the news came that the war had ended in Europe, Japanese Canadians thought this might be the end of the camps and time at last to return to regular communities. The school kids at Tashme declared it a holiday and celebrated with a hike into the mountains. But it soon became apparent that things were not simply going to return to normal. The B.C. politicians who had pushed for the internment of Japanese Canadians were still determined to keep them out of their communities. As a result, in 1945, the Japanese Canadians' choices for post-war freedom were limited. They could stay in Canada, but only if they moved east of the Rocky Mountains and settled in Ontario, Quebec or the Prairie provinces. Otherwise they would face deportation to war-ravaged Japan(5).

Irene Tsuyuki's father decided to return to Japan. She remembers the day she left. It was August sixth. Winifred Awmack recalls taking the school children, most of whose families had chosen to stay in Canada, down to see Irene and the others off.

In repatriating to Japan, Irene's parents lost their Canadian citizenship. In Japan, Irene was considered a foreign national of Canadian birthright. Many returnees like Irene felt they didn't belong in Japan. Irene remembers that as soon as they arrived, her father took her aside and said, "The first chance you get, you'll go back to Canada." Finally, in 1949 Canadian-born were allowed to return to Canada, provided they had a sponsor. Irene was sponsored by her future father-in-law. Her parents accompanied her to the Japanese port and she headed back home to Canada alone. She would never again see her own mother and father.


1,3 - The Enemy That Never Was, by Ken Adachi
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1976).

2,4,5 - The 1998 Canadian & World Encyclopedia
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1998).

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