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"Two Other Solitudes": Historical Encounters between Japanese Canadians and French Canadians - Part 1

Les Canadiens à qui on demande en quoi leur pays se distingue des États-Unis devraient répondre en français. (When Canadians are asked what is the difference between their country and the United States, they should answer in French.) —Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada, 1963-1968

As an American living in Montreal, I am frequently assigned the task of comparing the United States and Canada, and of reflecting on the particular factors that make life in these two countries, which share a border and a great deal else, so oddly different. One important historical element separating the two is that Canada, its relatively new policy of official multiculturalism notwithstanding, has not generally perceived itself as a nation of immigrants, as has more commonly (though hardly universally) been the case in the United States. Rather, the traditional basis of Canadian identity is the interaction between the nation’s two founding non-native peoples, the British and the French, whose distant and sometimes hostile coexistence the novelist Hugh MacLennan famously referred to as “the two solitudes.”1 All other groups who have come to Canada have been forced to place themselves within the English Canadian-French Canadian dyad. For various reasons, most of these immigrants, even in largely francophone Quebec, have tended to connect more with the dominant Anglophone group. They have confronted discrimination by the Anglo Saxons, acculturated to English language norms, and forged their identity vis-à-vis English Canadian values. In contrast, Canadian scholars, Anglophone and Francophone alike, have paid less attention to the interchange between immigrants and the French Canadian population. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of racialized minority groups, whose historical experience has most often been excluded from scholarly treatment in the first place. Such research, in my view, is especially valuable for the historical insight it provides into some essential questions about Canadian society: Have French Canadians, who have often felt themselves marginalized within the larger society, historically been more hospitable to other marginalized groups? Is Quebec truly a distinct society from the rest of Canada in its attitude towards immigration and racial difference? Has acculturation to a French model ever been an alternative for newcomers?2

The interaction between Japanese Canadians and French Canadians is illuminating in this regard, since these two groups’ historical encounter has contributed in important ways to shaping the modern development of Canada. The history of this encounter begins with the wave of Japanese immigration to Canada that took place at the turn of the 20th century. The vast majority of the Japanese immigrants settled in British Columbia, where they became active in agricultural labor, lumber mills and in the fishing and canning industries. By 1907, there were some 10,000 Japanese immigrants in Canada. Local whites, anxious over labor competition and inflamed by racial bias, organized protests against the Japanese presence. Beginning in 1897, British Columbia’s legislature passed a series of laws restricting Japanese immigration. The federal government disallowed all these laws in order not to disturb British imperial foreign policy towards its Japanese ally Emotions in British Columbia reached a pitch on September 7, 1907, when a mass demonstration called by the Asiatic Exclusion League in Vancouver broke into a race riot. White thugs attacked the city’s Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods, damaging property and looting shops.3

During these years, many French Canadians expressed ambivalence or hostility towards immigration to Canada generally. Immigration to Quebec, where most French Canadians lived, had been minimal from 1867 to 1896, but it expanded dramatically in the years afterwards.4 The Catholic Church, which dominated French Canadian intellectual life, underlined the importance of immutable racial and religious identities in opposing entry by Italians, Jews, and other groups. “For the French Canadian Catholic church, immigration was a horrid experience which caused individuals to lose their ties and sense of attachment to family and community values.”5 In addition, many educated French Canadians were influenced by prevailing social Darwinist ideas, and viewed immigrants from outside Western Europe as inferior and even dangerous on racial grounds.6 A cartoon from the journal Le Canard, dating from 1900, (See Appendix I) for example, presents the new immigrants, whether Asian, Jewish or Eastern European, in stereotyped fashion to emphasize their undesirability. French Canadian liberals, who had supported Confederation as a means of striking a balance of power between English and French, opposed immigration by members of other nationalities as a destabilizing force.

At the same time, the mass of French Canadians, concentrated in Quebec, remained largely distant from and indifferent to the specific question of Japanese immigration. Commentary in the French-language press on Japanese immigrants seems to have been scanty and neutral. In early 1907, La Presse expressed opposition to anti-Japanese legislation, not because it was racist but because it hindered development:

If British Columbia wishes to keep its anti-Japanese laws, so be it, but our country, being young, must follow the example of the United States, and as far as the development of our railroads is concerned, the policy of the Canadian people should be: whether you are black, yellow, red or white, come work!8

Despite the general indifference, French Canadian politicians, notably Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, occupied a central role in the exclusion of Japanese immigrants. Scholars of Canada’s Anti-Asian movements, notably Peter Ward and Patricia Roy, have described Laurier as generally respectful toward Japan, whose political and military progress he admired. He wrote in one letter, “The Japanese has adopted European civilization, has shown that he can whip European soldiers, has a navy equal man for man to the best afloat, and will not submit to be kicked and treated with contempt, as his brother from China still meekly submits to.”9 Fearing to confront Japanese power, Laurier refused to be drawn into the movement for exclusion.

After the 1907 Vancouver Riot, the Laurier government was forced to take action. As a conciliatory gesture towards Japan, the Prime Minister agreed to send Deputy Minister of Labour, future Prime Minister Mackenzie King, to Vancouver as head of a commission on payment for damages caused by the riot. Meanwhile, Laurier sought some means for limiting Japanese immigration that would placate British Columbian restrictionists without alienating Japan, disturbing the Anglo-Japanese naval alliance or violating the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce, to which Canada was a signatory.10 Laurier’s trusted lieutenant, Labour Minister Rodolphe Lemieux, volunteered to visit Tokyo and negotiate with the Japanese government an informal understanding to limit immigration visas, on the model of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” which Japanese leaders had just concluded with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.11 In addition to his closeness to Laurier, Lemieux was selected for this mission, the first independent demarche of Canadian diplomacy, because of his fluency in French, then the international language of diplomacy.12

Lemieux arrived in Tokyo in December 1907. Although his Japanese hosts refused any explicit undertaking that would signify Japanese inferiority, Lemieux succeeded in obtaining from First Minister Count Hayashi a private promise that Japan would henceforth permit only 400 Japanese each year to enter Canada.13 On his return from Japan in January 1908, Lemieux reported to Parliament on his mission, and hailed Japan’s willingness to cooperate in limiting immigration. In a long passage, Lemieux discussed the history of the “Japanese problem.” He made clear that unrestricted Japanese immigration posed a menace the western “Anglo-Saxon” civilization in which he clearly included French Canadians such as himself:

In an Anglo-Saxon country like ours, where democratic institutions prevail, the introduction in large numbers of foreign races unfamiliar with our principles of self-government can only be considered dangerous…These orientals belong to a civilization formed over the centuries in ways radically and totally different from ours. It is thus clear that British Columbians must oppose this vast foreign colony—exclusive, inscrutable, unassimilable, retaining their particular customs and characteristics.14

Laurier backed his minister with a two-hour speech of his own. Despite his friendly foreign policy towards Japan, Laurier made the case for a restrictive policy in apocalyptic and racially charged terms. “In all the nations where they have met, the white and mongol races have demonstrated their antagonism. The population of British Columbia is small, and it is understandable that they fear if the wave of Asian immigration is not contained, power will soon pass from one race to another.”15 The “Gentleman’s Agreement” was approved by a large majority in Parliament, and it remained in force, with some changes, until World War II.

Following the outbreak of the crisis in British Columbia, the French newspapers shifted rapidly towards an anti-immigrant line tone. The September 1907 issue of Le Canard depicted Japanese immigrants in dehumanized terms as a swarm of insects, although it also satirized the exaggerated nature of British Columbian xenophobia (see Appendix II). La Presse devoted generous coverage to Lemieux’s visit to Tokyo. The week of his return, it reported in indignant terms that three firemen in Victoria were attacked by “a horde” of “oriental demons.”16 Following Lemieux’s report and the announcement of the Gentleman’s Agreement, La Presse , which referred to both Laurier’s and Lemieux’s speeches as “magisterial exposés” of the Asian problem, expressed outspoken support for Japanese exclusion. Le Prix Courant and Le Moniteur de Commerce , which spoke for the Francophone business community, were even more extreme. According to historian Fernande Roy, in the months that followed the Vancouver riot and Lemieux’s visit to Japan, they published “Several hate-filled articles demanding that the government halt entirely all immigration by Blacks, Asians and Jews.”17

As anti-Japanese agitation in British Columbia subsided following the Gentlemen’s Agreement and a consequent sharp reduction in Japanese immigration, so too did attention to the issue among French Canadians. So far, I have found only a handful of references to Japanese Canadians in works by French Canadians in the following decades. Emile Miller’s 1912 textbook Terres et Peuples du Canada 18 spoke of British Columbia’s “8000 proud and combative Japanese” as part of an “invasion jaune” that threatened the future of the country. Louis Marie Le Jeune’s 1931 Dictionnaire Général described Japanese immigrants as the least desirable element among Asians, incontestably talented but inassimilable and resentful of their inferior status.19

Part 2 >>

1. Hugh McLennan, Two Solitudes , New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1945

2. Such historical questions became enmeshed in political controversy in Quebec following the publication of Normand Lester’s best-selling polemic Le Livre noir du Canada Anglais Montréal , Les Intouchables, 2001, and its sequel, which detailed English Canadian racism and discrimination towards other ethnic and racial groups, including Japanese Canadians.

3. Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians , Toronto, McLelland & Stewart, 1976, pp.41-46; W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia , Montreal, McGill-Queens University Press, 1978

4. Norman McDonald, Canada, immigration and Colonization, 1841-1903 , Aberdeen, Scotland, Aberdeen University Press, 1966, p.187; Paul-André Linteau, René Durocher, et Jean-Claude Robert, Histoire du Québec Contemporain, Vol. I de la Conféderation à la crise 1867-1929 , Montreal, Boréal Express, 1979, p.176

5. “Pour l’Église catholique canadienne-française, l’émigration est une expérience néfaste qui fait perdre aux individus leurs liens et sens d’attachement aux valeurs familiales et communautaires.” Denise Helly, Les Chinois à Montréal, 1877-1951 , Montréal, éditions de l’IQRC, 1979, p.179

6. Fernande Roy, Progrès. Harmonie. Liberté: le liberalisme des milieux d’affaires francophones à Montréal au tournant du siècle , Montreal, Boréal, 1988, pp. 238 passim.

7. Ibid .

8. “Un véritable péril national”, La Presse , January 16, 1907, 16:1 “que la législation provinciale de la Colombie Britannique contre les japonais reste en force, soit… Notre pays, étant jeune, doit suivre l’exemple des États-Unis, et en autant que le développement de nos voies ferrées est concerné, la politique du peuple canadien doit être: que vous soyez noirs, jaunes, rouges ou blancs, venez travailler!”

9. Ward, White Canada Forever ; Patricia Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1924 , Vancluver, University of British Columbia Press, 1989, p. 198

10. Roy, A White Man’s Province , p. 197

11. La Presse , January 29 1908, 13;5

12. René Castonguay, Rodolphe Lemieux et le Parti Liberal 1866-1937: le chevalier du roi , Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université Laval, 2000

13. Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was , p.81

14. La Presse January 10, 1908. “dans un pays anglo-saxon comme le nôtre, où les institutions démocratiques prévalent, l’introduction en grand nombre de races étrangères, non familières avec nos principes de self-government ne pouvait être vu sans danger. ..Ces orientaux appartiennent à une civilisation formée par les siècles, sur mode radicalement et totalement différent du nôtre. Il est donc établi que les Colombiens s’opposent à cette vaste colonie étrangère—exclusive, inscrutable, non-assimilable, peu exigeante, conservant intacts leurs coutumes particulières et caractéristiques…ne pouvant ni désirant s’amalgamer…”

15. Ibid. “Dans tout les pays où elles sont rencontrées, les races blanches et mongole ont fait preuve d’antagonisme…la population de la Colombie Britannique est petite et l’on craint, cela se comprend, que si le courant d’immigration asiatique n’était pas endigué, le pouvoir passerait bientôt d’un race à l’autre.”

16. La Presse , January 2 1908, 8

17. “...[P]lusieurs articles haineux exigeant qu’on prohibe totalement l’immigration des Chinois, des Japonais, et des Noirs,” Fernande Roy, Progrès. Harmonie. Liberté , p.238

18. Emile Miller, Terre et Peuples du Canada , Montreal, Beauchemin, 1912, p.142

19. “Japonais” in Louis Marie Le Jeune, Dictionnaire général de biographie, histoire, littérature, agriculture, commerce, industrie et des arts, science, moeurs, coutumes, institutions politiques et religieuses du Canada , Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1931, Vol. 1, p.33

*This article was originally published in:
Ada Savin, ed. Journey Into Otherness: Essays In North American History, Culture, and Literature . Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
Greg Donaghy and Patrica Roy, eds. North Pacific Neighbours: Canada and Japan in the 20th Century.

© 2005 Greg Robinson

Canadá Segunda Guerra Mundial
Acerca del Autor

Greg Robinson, nativo de Nueva York, es profesor de historia en la Universidad de Quebec en Montreal , una institución franco-parlante  de Montreal, Canadá. Él es autor de los libros By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Editorial de la Universidad de Harvard, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Editorial de la Universidad de Columbia, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (Editorial de la Universidad de California, 2012), y Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (Editorial de la Universidad de Illinois, 2012), The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (Editorial de la Universidad de Colorado, 2016), y coeditor de la antología Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (Editorial de la Universidad de Washington, 2008). Robinson es además coeditor del volumen de John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (Editorial del Universidad de Washington, 2018). El último libro de Robinson es una antología de sus columnas, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (Editorial del Universidad de Washington, 2020). Puede ser contactado al email

Última actualización en julio de 2021

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