Case Study 1: Japanese Canadians

Context Card

Black and white photograph of four young Japanese women standing in front of an internment camp, with their hands on one another's shoulders. Mountains are in the background.
Source: CWM 20150279-001_p21, George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum

Japanese Canadians have lived in Canada since the 1870s. Most of them lived in British Columbia, where they worked as fishers, farmers and business owners. Racism against Asians led the BC government to ban Japanese Canadians from voting, which in turn affected their federal voting rights. During the Second World War (1939–1945), when Canada was at war with Japan, the democratic rights of Japanese Canadians were further restricted. For perceived security reasons, Japanese Canadians were forcibly relocated away from the Pacific coast and barred from voting federally, no matter what province they were in. It wasn’t until 1948 that Japanese Canadians were finally granted full federal and provincial voting rights.

In the years that followed, Japanese Canadians never stopped asking for an apology. They finally got one in 1988, when the federal government formally apologized for past injustices.

Activity Cards

1871

A black and white photograph of a Japanese family of five posing in traditional attire. An older gentleman sits in the middle, with two children on either side.
Source: Image C-07918 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

British Columbia joins Confederation. Canada’s population now includes a Japanese Canadian minority. They have the right to vote provincially and federally if they are men, age 21 or older, and own property.

1895

A black and white photograph of a Japanese man seated beside his two young children.
Source: JCCC Original Photographic Collection, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, 2001.4.119

Because of the racist attitudes of many people in the province at that time, the British Columbia government passes a law banning Japanese Canadians from voting in provincial elections. Since federal voting rights are tied to provincial ones, Japanese Canadians living in BC cannot vote in federal elections.

1898

Black and white photograph of Wilfred Laurier, standing beside a table with his hand resting on a large open book.
Source: Samuel J. Jarvis, Library and Archives Canada, C-001977  

Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia get the federal vote when Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier’s government brings in a new Canada-wide electoral law that prevents provinces from excluding any ‘class’ of citizens.

Japanese Canadians are still denied the provincial vote in British Columbia.

1900

Black and white photograph of a mustachioed Japanese man, taken from the waist-up, holding his hat in his hands.
Source: Yoshimaru Abe Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2013.54.4  

Tomekichi Homma takes his legal fight to vote in British Columbia elections all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which rules in his favour. This decision is later overruled in England. Japanese Canadians continue to be excluded from voting provincially in BC.

1917

Black and white photograph of two Japanese men in military uniform, holding rifles at their sides. One man stands, and the other kneels on one knee in front of him.
Source: Masumi Mitsui Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2014.10.1.10

During the First World War, Japanese Canadians join the military to fight for Canada. These soldiers and all Canadian military serving overseas can vote in the 1917 federal election

1920

Black and white photograph of Prime Minister Robert Borden, in profile.
Source: William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-028129

Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government passes a new federal election law. It states that a person cannot vote federally if they are not allowed to vote provincially due to their race. This means that Japanese Canadians in BC are again denied the right to vote federally as well as provincially.

Japanese Canadians living in other provinces have the right to vote, but there are very few of them outside BC.

1936

 A black and white photograph of a group of four Japanese men and women, standing on the steps of Parliament.  
Source: Isami (Sam) Okamoto Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2000.14.1.1.1

The Japanese Canadian Citizens League sends a delegation to the House of Commons to request the right to vote. Prime Minister Mackenzie King says he had not known they wanted to vote.

They are allowed to speak before a special committee, but do not succeed in getting the federal vote for Japanese Canadians.

1941

A black and white photograph showing many people of all ages being loaded into the back of a truck, with their luggage. Many others wait in line behind a rope barrier.
Source: Tak Toyota, Library and Archives Canada, C-046350

After Japan attacks Pearl Harbor in the Second World War, Canada declares war with Japan. Japanese Canadians are seen as a security threat, and racism gets worse. Twelve weeks later, the Government of Canada orders all Japanese Canadians to be moved from the BC coast and confined in internment camps.

1944

An illustrated poster depicting a map of Canada surrounded by a Japanese and German soldier on either side, with threatening expressions on their faces. The text reads: “They menace Canada on both coasts. Come on Canada! Get ready to buy the new Victory Bonds!”
Source: Library and Archives Canada, e010695747-v8

Canada is still at war with Japan. Parliament changes the elections law so that Japanese Canadians who have been moved from British Columbia are not allowed to vote federally, no matter where they live now.

1948

Photograph of a Japanese woman casting her ballot in a polling station.
Source: Canadian Centennial Collection, Nikkei National Museum, 2010.23.2.4.666

After the Second World War ends, Parliament gives Japanese Canadians the right to vote in federal elections again.

1988

 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs an official document. The Canadian government formally apologizes to Japanese Canadians for denying them their civil and democratic rights.
Source: The Canadian Press / Ron Poling

The Canadian government formally apologizes to Japanese Canadians for denying them their civil and democratic rights. Here Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs the apology while Art Miki, President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, looks on.