"Two Other Solitudes": Historical Encounters between Japanese Canadians and French Canadians - Part 2

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This distant attitude would gradually change after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The outbreak of war between Japan and the British Empire unleashed a new wave of anti-Japanese hysteria in British Columbia. White farmers, merchants and political leaders, seizing the opportunity to rid themselves of their long-despised ethnic Japanese competitors, accused the Japanese Canadians of being spies and saboteurs for Tokyo, and called for drastic action to protect the West Coast. In response to the political pressure, on February 26, 1942, two days after the government issued Order in Council P.C. 1486, which granted the military authority over civilians, Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that all people of Japanese ancestry would be excluded from a 100-mile zone of the Pacific Coast. The order led to the expulsion from their homes of 22,000 Canadian Japanese, the vast majority of whom were Nisei (Canadian-born citizens) under 21 years old. Families were separated as able-bodied men were sent to work in road labour camps, while women and children were transported to sugar beet farms or to concentration camps, most of them near largely abandoned mining towns. In order to finance the internment of these community members and discourage them from returning to the West Coast, the government confiscated their land and possessions, which a Custodian of Enemy Alien Property an enemy property custodian then sold off for a fraction of their value.1

In 1944, a new order-in-council presented confined Japanese Canadians with a stark choice: agree to move permanently east of British Columbia, or face postwar deportation to Japan. Most of the internees consented to be resettled, and new communities grew up in and around cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg. In the first years after the war, the Canadian government, hoping to appease racist public opinion in British Columbia, renewed its restrictions on Japanese Canadians, although there was clearly no longer any conceivable military danger. Under the direction of Justice Minister (and future Prime Minister) Louis St. Laurent, the government issued an order-in-council to deport the 10,000 Japanese Canadians who had “agreed” to “voluntary” repatriation. By this time, however, the war had ended, and there was increasing criticism of the injustice of the government’s actions. Progressive and religious groups joined Japanese Canadians to form the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians, which organized legal challenges to the involuntary deportation of Japanese Canadians. Although in 1946 the Supreme Court of Canada (and subsequently the British Privy Council) upheld the constitutionality of mass deportations, the government ultimately abandoned that policy in the face of public opposition. The nation’s West Coast was finally reopened to Japanese Canadians on April 1, 1949.2

The anti-Japanese hysteria on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor found little echo in Quebec, where both the war and the government’s conscription law remained unpopular (Montreal’s mayor Camellien Houde, imprisoned for counselling resistance to conscription, became a martyr to many French Canadians). At first, the French Canadian press even rang a supportive note. La Patrie reported that none of the 17 people in Montreal’s tiny Japanese colony, most of whom were outspokenly pro-British, had been arrested for disloyal activity.3 One resident, H.S. Kobayashi, the article noted, was a Canadian WW I veteran. Ten days later, all Canadian residents of Japanese ancestry were ordered to register with the federal government. A correspondent for La Presse referred to those concerned as “The Japanese whose loyalty to Canada is undoubted, except in a few isolated cases.”4 As the movement for mass expulsion of Japanese Canadians grew, the prevailing tone among Quebec newspapers remained one of indifference. Newspaper coverage of the internment decisions was scanty, and consisted in large part of wire service dispatches or verbatim reports of government statements. Interestingly, French Canadians newspapers devoted much greater attention to the contemporaneous anti-Japanese movement in California and to the internment of Japanese Americans.

This said, the French-language press reports revealed little sympathy for Japanese Canadians, and editors showed some signs of anti-Japanese hostility along with their editorial support for official policy. On February 25, even before the government announced its policy of evacuation of all ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, La Patrie devoted prominent space to a speech by Ian Mackenzie, a Liberal M.P. from British Columbia who was the chief instigator of evacuation within the Cabinet, stating that the Japanese Canadians would be entirely removed from the West Coast. “First we will remove the men. Later we will take care of their families.”5 Shortly afterwards, a headline in the journal referred to the Japanese Canadians in British Columbia as “the Yellow Peril.”6 Similarly, in March 1942, Montreal Matin printed on its editorial page an article by H.H. Stevens, a former Minister of Trade and Commerce in R.B. Bennett’s Conservative government. As a Member of Parliament for Vancouver from 1911 to 1940, Stevens had often campaigned against Asian immigration. Stevens repeated all the familiar canards about Japanese spies and saboteurs and insisted that Japanese Canadians had already formed military units for mobilization in support of a potential Japanese invasion.7 The newspaper’s editors agreed with Stevens on the necessity of removing all Japanese Canadians to the interior, where they could be “under control and observation.” The editorial stated “the Question of military defense must be discussed by experts but that of the presence of Japanese in strategic areas does not require and military knowledge.”8

The dispersion of Japanese Canadians from the Canadian Pacific Coast marked a turning point in the encounter between Japanese Canadians and French Canadians. Beginning in 1943, Japanese Canadians, predominantly Nisei, began to leave the camps and move East.9 The New Canadian , the organ of the Japanese Canadian Citizens League, published repeated accounts by Tom Shoyama extolling Montreal as an ethnically diverse city free of discrimination where Japanese Canadians could easily find jobs. As a result, Montreal’s Japanese population jumped from 25 in January 1942 to 334 by the end of 1943.10 The trickle became a torrent following the government’s 1944 Order-in-Council requiring Japanese Canadians to relocate outside of British Columbia, as the majority of the country’s ethnic Japanese population accepted resettlement in the East. The largest fraction of migrants, most of who were young, unmarried Nisei, settled in agricultural southern Ontario or near Toronto (whose Board of Control refused to allow Japanese Canadians to reside within city limits until 1946). However, approximately one-tenth of the migrants resettled in Montreal, despite the vocal opposition of Premier Maurice Duplessis, the right-wing French Canadian nationalist who had returned to power shortly before. In the end, the newcomers to Quebec settled almost exclusively in the Montreal area,11 whose Japanese population reached 1247 by the end of 1946 and over 1300 in 1949, making it the largest Japanese community in the Francophone world.12

The full story of Japanese Canadian settlement and adaptation in Montreal is beyond the scope of this work, but a few general statements can be made. Many of the newcomers discovered that public opinion was less negative against them than in British Columbia, and some were able to find jobs in areas such as nursing, public schools, and accounting. Koryo Shimotakahara set up a popular ladies’ fashion store on rue St. Catherine.13 Nevertheless, Japanese Canadians in Montreal encountered significant racial prejudice, especially in housing and employment. Many Nisei, irrespective of their qualifications, were forced to take menial labor jobs, particularly in domestic service, where 74 out of a total of 240 employed Nisei were working at the end of 1943.14 Another significant fraction of Nisei was able to find work in the garment factories of Montreal’s Jewish community.15

The Nisei formed a number of community institutions for mutual support and sociability. In 1944, a group of Nisei Christians led by Taira Yasunaka formed a Friendship Club, while a group of young workers and university students formed a Nisei Fellowship Club in 1946. With the aid of United Church minister Rev. Kosaburu Shimizu, the two clubs united to create the Montreal Japanese United Church in 1946-1947.16 Shortly afterward, the Montreal Buddhist Church was founded, although Premier Duplessis refused to grant the Buddhist Church official recognition as a religious institution.17 In May 1946, a monthly community newsletter, The Montreal Bulletin , commenced publication.18

The migration to Quebec brought French Canadians and Japanese Canadians into large-scale association for the first time. Many of the migrants settled in the historically French neighbourhoods of Villeray and St. Michel, and the Nisei interacted daily with French Canadians on the streets, in school, and in the workplace. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a measure of confusion and wariness among the locals at their first contact with the newcomers. As one Nisei later described, he was a figure of curiosity at his new job:

The French Canadians with whom I worked asked me if I was Chinese; I told them no. Then they asked where I came from; I told them British Columbia...Then I told them what had happened during the war. They could not believe it. They simply could not understand it.19

Still, many Nisei made friends with their French neighbors and coworkers, and there were a number of marriages between members of the two groups during the postwar years. One Nisei later explained that he felt a warmer welcome from the French group. “I was impressed by the French Canadians. They are interested to know you; they are simple, ordinary people...with a rather friendly curiosity…The English…not every one of them is bad. But as a group...you have to be on your guard.”20

Meanwhile, leaders within both the city’s English and French communities divided over the issue of how to deal with the Japanese Canadian “problem”. The city’s politically dominant English community initially reacted to the newcomers with hostility. In October 1944, McGill College, which was notorious for its longstanding discriminatory policies against Jews and other ethnic minorities, became the first Canadian university officially to close its doors to Japanese Canadian students.21 The English-language newspaper Montreal Star editorialized in May 1944 about the need to “clear out lock stock and barrel” and deport the entire Japanese Canadian population.22 However, liberals and religious groups supported the rights of Canadian citizens. McGill Sociology professor Forrest La Violette (an American of French Canadian ancestry) denounced anti-Nisei racism and warned that discrimination at home would hinder Canada’s postwar international role.23 The United Church organized aid to the migrants. Sir George Williams University accepted a number of Nisei students. McGill’s Students Society sponsored a mass meeting protesting the University’s exclusion policy, and the university Senate voted to lift the exclusion in autumn 1945.24

The French community reaction was rather different. From the beginning, a number of French Canadian organizations organized in support of the Japanese Canadians. In 1945, Mother Saint-Pierre and the Sœurs du Christ-Roi opened a hostel for young Nisei women,25 and when Father Jean-Claude Labreque returned to Montreal from a mission to Japan in 1950, he devoted himself to assisting Japanese Canadians.26 The Université de Montreal accepted Nisei students.27 However, the institutional response of French Canadians was overwhelmingly one of indifference, and even Premier Duplessis’s hostility did not translate into restrictive legislation.

Rather, it was the issue of deportation that gained widespread attention within the French community, and galvanized a major split. As in the era of Wilfrid Laurier, French Canadian officials led anti-Japanese forces within the federal government. Within the Cabinet of Prime Minster Mackenzie King, it was Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent, dubbed “the King of Quebec,” who campaigned for deportation of as many Japanese Canadians as possible following the war. When liberal groups challenged St. Laurent’s Orders in Council, Maitre Aimé Geoffrion defended the government’s position on mass deportation before the Canadian Supreme Court. The Court ruled in the government’s favor in February 1946, but divided over the issue of whether women and children could be involuntarily deported. Among the minority who supported the extreme position were the Court’s two French Canadian judges, chief Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret and Associate (later chief) judge Robert Taschereau, who ruled that the Orders-in-Council gave the government authority to strip any Canadian citizen of Japanese ancestry of their citizenship and to deport whom it chose. During the months that followed, as public opinion turned against discrimination and the government hesitated to enforce its orders, St. Laurent continued to push for mass deportation. On January 22, 1947, he called for the renewal of Orders-in-Council restricting people of Japanese ancestry, insisting that the Japanese Canadians would be “troublesome” if they were not deported, and warning that their continued presence would lead to pressure “to have the Japanese in Canada given the same rights as the white population.”28

In contrast, French Canadians outside government circles lined up to support the citizenship rights of the Nisei. The French section of the Canadian Welfare Council unanimously adopted a resolution asking the Prime Minister to grant full rights to Canadian citizens.29 The nationalist Saint Jean-Baptiste society joined the YMCA and the Canadian Jewish Congress in sponsoring the Montreal Committee on Canadian Citizenship/Le Comité pour la défense de la citoyenneté canadienne to support the rights of Japanese Canadians,30 and a group of progressive French Canadian activists, including Therese Casgrain, Jacques Perrault and Roger Ouimet, were named to its Executive Committee. The Committee, which denounced the deportation policy as “dangerous and attacking the fundamental rights of minorities,” mobilized to awaken public opinion and to raise funds in order to appeal the Supreme Court judgment to the Privy Council.31 In 1947, Benoît Michaud, a French Canadian member of parliament from Restigouche-Madawaska, New Brunswick, spoke out in Parliament against the extension of the War Measures Act by stating "As a member of a minority race in Canada, I must oppose such legislation".32 Quebec newspapers also quietly expressed support for Japanese Canadians during this time. La Patrie ran a photo of a Japanese Canadian reading a book on citizenship and explained that any “deportation” of such people would be expulsion, as they were born in Canada and would be strangers in Japan.33 Montréal-Matin ran a story on a Japanese Canadian serving with Allied intelligence in Asia, G. Suzuki, which featured the headline “Long Live Democracy.”34

In the years after World War II, as Toronto and the Pacific Coast reopened to Japanese Canadians, many of those who had initially resettled in Montreal left the city. Quebec’s society remained unfamiliar to them, and their lack of French fluency limited their employment and business prospects.35 Nevertheless, the majority preferred to stay in their adopted city, where they had put down roots and started families and careers. Many Nisei considered Montreal a far less hostile environment than their previous homes, and they were able to become absorbed into the wider society.36 In the following decades, the Montreal community was reinforced by new arrivals, and by 1971 it numbered 1670 people.37 The community produced a few well-known figures during these years, including the actor Robert Ito and the jazz trombonist Jiro “Butch” Watanabe.

The central question remains: has the presence of Japanese Canadians in Quebec led to a special relationship between them and the French Canadian majority? The answer seems to be “yes and no”. On the one hand, the two communities remain fairly separate. Most Japanese Canadians in Montreal, particularly longtime residents, gravitate toward the Anglophone community, attend English-language universities, and opposed Quebec separatism during the 1970s and 1980s. A poll of 184 Japanese immigrants taken in 1976, at the time of the nationalist Parti Quebecois’s accession to power, found that the immigrants considered themselves part of the English-speaking population, while 37.5% said they would probably or definitely leave Quebec should it become independent.38 Conversely, during this period most French Canadians remained indifferent to the Japanese Canadians’ fight for redress for their wartime internment. The Parti Quebecois took no official position, and Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who in 1970 had sought to crush Quebec separatism by invoking the same War Measures Act that the Mackenzie King government had previously used to violate the civil rights of Canadian citizens of Japanese origin) expressed his opposition to the granting of a public apology or reparations for the injustice.39 Occasional episodes of racial tension arise, as in the case of a reporter for Le Journal de Montreal who during the 1998 Winter Olympics publicly mocked Japanese facial characteristics. On the other hand, in recent decades Japanese community institutions have embraced bilingualism—or sometimes, as in the case of the Montreal Bulletin , trilingualism. Quebec is home to a number of francophone Japanese writers and artists such as novelist Aki Shimazaki and painter Miyuki Tanobe. Furthermore, during the 1980s a number of French Canadians, including filmmaker Denys Arcand and novelist Marie-Claire Blais, publicly expressed their support for Japanese Canadian redress.40 In 1988, when negotiations between Japanese Canadians and the government of Conservative Prime minister Brian Mulroney on a redress package became blocked, it was a French Canadian minister, Lucien Bouchard, whom Mulroney named to lead the government’s team. Bouchard used his influence to broker a redress package that included an official apology and a $21,000 redress payment as compensation for the wartime internment.41 Bouchard’s actions show, perhaps, that within these two solitudes, there is the potential for an entente cordiale.


1. For the Canadian internment, see, for example, Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was , pp199-306; Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During World War II , Toronto: Lorimer, 1981

2. Ibid .

3. La Patrie , December 10, 1941, 6:2

4. "Les Japonais, dont la loyauté au Canada n’est pas mise en doute, sauf dans les cas isolés..." La Presse , December 16, 1941.

5. "Nous déplaçons les homes les premiers. Plus tard, nous nous occuperons des familles." "L’Évacuation des Japonais", La Patrie , February 25, 1942 20:4

6. "Le Péril jaune", La Patrie , March 16, 1942, 21:4.

7. H.H. Stevens, "Le problème japonais en Colombie-Britannique" Montreal-Matin March 3, 1942, 4:4-5

8. "L’article de M. Stevens" Montreal-Matin March 3, 1942, 4:1-2 "La question de la défense militaire doit être discutée par des experts mais celle de la présence des japonais a des endroits stratégiques ne nécessite aucune connaissance militaire."

9. I have not considered the interactions between Japanese Canadians and French Canadians in Western Canada, both because these were clearly less significant and because there is little documentation of them.

10. Canada, Department of Labour, The Re-establishment of Japanese in Canada 1944-1946 , Ottawa, 1947.

11. Late in 1946, an additional 300 Japanese Canadians were briefly resettled in a hostel in Farnham, Quebec, after which they generally passed though Montreal.

12. Vancouver Sun , March 17, 1945, cited in Forrest La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II , Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948, p.239; Montreal Japanese Canadian survey, 1953, cited in Keiko Minai, “The Japanese In Montreal: Socio-economic Integration and Ethnic identification of an Immigrant Group” M.A. Thesis, Sociology, McGill University, 1977, p.9

13. Toyo Takata, Nikkei Legacy: The Story of Japanese Canadians from Settlement to Today , Toronto: NC Press Limited, 1983. For the story of the Issei physician Kozo Shimo Takahara’s studies in Montreal, see also Gordon G. Nakayama, Issei: Stories of Japanese Canadian Pioneers , Toronto: Gordon Nakayama, 1983, pp.55-69

14. See Masako Iino, “From B.C. to Montreal—the Resettlement of Japanese Canadians in the East,” The Journal of American and Canadian Studies , No. 8 (Autumn 1991), pp.60-61.

15. "Ganbari: Reclaiming Our Home/Ganbari:un chez-soi retrouvé“ Montreal, Montreal Japanese Canadian History Committee, 1998, p.934.

16. Roland M. Kawano, ed. A History of the Japanese Congregations in the United Church of Canada , Scarborough, ON: The Japanese Canadian Christian Churches Historical Project, 1998 (196), pp.98-102; Isobel McFadden, Kosaburo Shimizu: The Man Who Knew The Difference , Toronto: United Church of Canada Board of Information, 1965

17. Terry Watada, Bukkyo Tozen : A History of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in Canada, 1905-1995 , Toronto: Toronto Buddhist Church, 1995, pp.245-254. Buddhism remained unrecognized as an official religion in Quebec into the mid 1990s.

18. For the Montreal Bulletin and its community influence, see Kuniko Kondo, “Les Canadiens d’origine japonaise à Montréal: Leur processus d’intégration dans la vie canadienne” M.A. thesis, sociology, Université de Montréal, 2000, pp.121-126 passim .

19. “Repartir à zero: L’expérience des Canadiens d’origine japonaise à Montréal, 1942-1952” Tribune Juive , Vol. 5 No. 1 (Juillet-Août 1987), pp. 15-16.

20. Ibid . p. 16

21. La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II , p. 183

22. Ibid ., p.307

23. “Canada’s Jap Problem Cited.” Montreal Star , February 13, 1945; "Jap Problem Here Outlined at Club.” Montreal Gazette , February 13, 1945. La Violette would go on three years later to publish The Canadian Japanese and World War II , the first book to examine the wartime experience of the Nisei.

24. “Stand on Japs ‘Neutral’” Montreal Gazette , November 16, 1944; "Senate Will Study Japanese Problem," Montreal Star , November 6, 1944.

25. “Ganbari: Reclaiming Our Home/Ganbari: un chez-soi retrouvé,“ p.12

26. Ibid ., p.12

27. Ibid ., p.10

28. Sunahara, The Politics of Racism , p.145.

29. La Patrie , December 10, 1945, p.10.

30. Patricia Roy, J.L. Granatstein, Masako Iino, and Hiroko Takamura, Mutual Hostages: Canadians and Japanese During the Second World War , Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p.178

31. Montreal Gazette , February 28, 1946.

32. "Order in Council to Continue", Nisei Affairs , April 1947, p.5

33. "Que Veut dire déportation?" La Patrie , January 22, 1946, p.25

34. "Vive la démocratie!", Montréal-Matin , February 16, 1946, 9:1. In a somewhat more neutral vein, La Patrie responded by publishing in their March 26, 1946 issue a photo of George Tamaki, a Japanese Canadian appointed as a legal council in Saskatchewan by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a Social Democratic party.

35. Takata, Nisei Legacy , p.168.

36. Iino, “From B.C. to Montreal”, p.53 passim .

37. Census of Canada, cited in Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was , p. 413. The total ethnic Japanese population of Quebec province was 1,745.

38. Minai, “The Japanese in Montreal”, pp. 73-76

39. Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience , Toronto, Between the Lines, 1992, p. 168. The attitude of the French Canadian press towards the redress movement remains to be studied. Incomplete evidence suggests that Quebecois newspapers did not take a strong position on redress until it had been granted, but that their reaction to the announcement was largely positive. See, for example, Lily Tasso, "Coalition des Canadiens Japonais" La Presse , February 7, 1998, p. A6; Marie Lecomte, “Il y a eu les Japonais, mais les autres?” Le Devoir , September 30, 1988, p.9.

40. See membership list of National Coalition for Japanese Canadian Redress, reprinted in Roy Miki and Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in Our Time: The Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement , Vancouver: Talonbooks, Winnipeg, National Association of Japanese Canadians, 1991, pp.112-115

41. Justice in Our Time , pp.134-137. Bouchard later spoke movingly of the special injustice done to Japanese Canadians: “Il faut se rappeler ce qu'a été le dossier des Japonais. Ce sont des groupes ethniques qui ont été spoliés de leurs biens, arrachés à leurs terres, internés durant toute la guerre avec leurs familles, et qui n'ont jamais pu, après, obtenir le remboursement de leurs biens qui avaient été vendus à des tiers, et les profits ayant été empochés par d'autres. C'était une situation particulièrement odieuse, M. le Président, c'était une grande tache.". Remarques du Premier Lucien Bouchard, Questions et réponses orales Débats de l’Assemblée Nationale, le mardi 6 juin 2000.

*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

カナダ 第二次世界大戦


『By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans』(ハーバード大学出版局 2001年)、『A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America』 ( コロンビア大学出版局 2009年)、『After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics』 (カリフォルニア大学出版局 2012年)、『Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era』 (イリノイ大学出版局 2012年)、『The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches』(コロラド大学出版局、2016年)があり、詩選集『Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road』(ワシントン大学出版局 2008年)の共編者でもあります。『John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy』(2018年、ワシントン大学出版)の共同編集も手掛けた。 最新作には、『The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans』(2020年、ワシントン大学出版)がある。連絡先:robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

(2021年7月 更新) 

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