THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Japanese Canadian redress and its worldwide impact


Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in Nikkei Voice’s October 2013 issue.

On August 10, 1988, following almost two decades of political organizing, lawsuits and lobbying by Japanese Americans and their supporters for reparations (in what they dubbed the Campaign for Redress), the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was enacted. It granted an official apology and a $20,000 tax-free payment to surviving members of the group of 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been forcibly removed from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066 and confined without charge in government camps during World War II. Six weeks later, following a settlement brokered by the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canada’s Parliament approved redress legislation for survivors of the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who had been removed from their homes during World War II under Order-in-Council 1486, and who had been stripped of their property by the Canadian government and forced to pay for their own confinement. In recognition of the greater burden of injustice that Japanese Canadians faced (and in what I have always considered a case of Canadian one-upmanship), the Mulroney government offered victims an official apology and a payment of $21,000!

Superficially, the redress struggles in the two countries closely resembled each other, and it goes without saying that the Japanese Canadian campaign was heavily influenced by its counterpart south of the border. Certainly, had not the U.S. Congress acted in Summer 1988, it is likely that the final settlement of Japanese Canadian redress would have been granted much later — if at all. All that said, the evolution of redress was quite different in the two countries.

At the cost of rigidly oversimplifying, we can note that in the United States, the movement for reparations started out with rather universalistic goals and motivations, and grew progressively narrower as time went on. During its initial organizing period in the 1970s, which occurred in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the push for reparations by Japanese Americans formed part of a larger multigroup movement against white supremacy. Activists frequently referred to their wartime confinement as an episode in a larger history of racial discrimination, especially that against Black Americans. Conversely, the movement’s chief outside supporters during these initial years were African Americans, notably Black political leaders in California such as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Representatives Augustus Hawkins, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, and especially Mervyn M. Dymally (who introduced in Congress in 1982 the first version of the redress legislation that was ultimately enacted).

During the 1980s, however, the Japanese American Redress Movement shifted “from protest to politics” (in the phrase of the late Bayard Rustin). In the hands of Nisei members of Congress and seasoned lobbyists from the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the push for redress became more narrowly focused on the passage of special legislation. In the process, it lost much of its initial universalistic quality. Rather than connecting their experience with that of other non-white groups, redress supporters underlined the exceptional nature of the wartime “internment”: Indeed, a large part of the reason that Japanese Americans campaigned for the granting of reparations only to surviving individual inmates, and not to the families of the deceased, was to ease fears by conservative legislators that any posthumous award would set a precedent for demands by African American groups for reparations for slavery. In the same way, advocates of redress underlined the wartime loyalty and patriotism of Japanese Americans by reference to Nisei soldiers — the Civil Liberties bill was deliberately registered as H.R. 442 in tribute to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the segregated Nisei military unit that achieved renown for its wartime exploits in combat in Europe.

In Canada, by contrast, the movement for reparations started small and then in certain respects grew more universalistic over time. First, it did not spring from a larger antiracist coalition, like that of the Americans. In the generation following 1949, when Japanese Canadians were finally granted voting rights and were permitted to return to their former West Coast home region, they generally devoted themselves to recovering from the psychological impact of the war, getting an education, working, and raising families. Japanese Canadians sponsored a handful of newspapers and formed the NAJC and other political organizations to lobby for political reform, and in select cases local individuals and communities formed coalitions to open up jobs and create opportunities for members of diverse ethnic and racial groups. Yet, unlike in the United States, where the Japanese American Citizens League was able to sponsor certain remedial legislation and gain a national platform in support of civil rights for all (and where Nisei from Hawaii were elected to Congress beginning in the 1950s) the Canadian groups operated on a rather small scale and did not form strong alliances with other groups.

After the beginning of the 1970s, as Canada reopened its doors to Asian immigration on an equal basis and the government instituted a policy of official multiculturalism and ethnic affirmation, Japanese Canadians began to organize remembrances and educational campaigns on the model of those taking place south of the border. The NAJC and other groups organized to lobby for redress. Even more than in the United States, former inmates divided bitterly over strategic questions, notably the size of a proposed redress package and whether to claim individual reparations or accept a lump-sum payment, as well as over the larger question of who could claim the right to speak and negotiate in the name of the community.

Redress advocates also met with strong resistance, both official and unofficial. Canadian war veterans who had been captured in the fall of Hong Kong and placed in Japanese POW camps opposed what they considered special treatment for Japanese Canadians. Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, for his part, remained hostile. While Trudeau admitted during a speech in Tokyo during 1976 that the wartime treatment of Japanese Canadians represented a deprivation of civil rights, he publicly rejected the principle of reparations for past injustices (which evidently extended to those still living!).

In response, Japanese Canadians reached out to members of other groups. (One day, some enterprising historian will analyze the history of Rikka, the extraordinary multicultural magazine put together by Nikkei in Toronto during this period, and its contribution to Redress). They were thereby able to gain important supporters for the movement. For example, in early 1984, just before Pierre Trudeau resigned as Prime Minister, the Canadian Jewish Congress’s national executive, including President Milton Harris and national chair Dorothy Reitman, sent him a telegram expressing firm support for “moral and material restitution” to Japanese Canadians. “We cannot do justice to visible minorities in Canada today,” the CJC added, “if we do not rectify the injustices of yesterday.” The CJC and other Jewish groups would repeatedly raise the issue of redress in Ottawa in the years that followed.

In 1984 the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was swept into office. Mulroney was sympathetic to claims by Japanese Canadians, but he hesitated to place a dollar amount on a settlement. The NAJC responded by commissioning a study from the esteemed accounting firm of Price Waterhouse. It estimated that the official actions had cost the Japanese community in Canada some $333 million in revenue and $110 million in property (in 1986 dollars). In 1988, even as the United States Congress voted H.R. 442, a final round of negotiations was scheduled between Japanese Canadians and the Mulroney government on a redress package. When the parties became deadlocked, the Prime Minister named his close collaborator, Secretary of State Lucien Bouchard, to lead the government’s team. Bouchard used his influence to broker an agreement on a redress package, and the plan was voted into law in September 1988, some six weeks after redress was enacted in Washington.

As we commemorate a quarter century since the awarding of redress, it is worth exploring its larger meaning. The history of redress was marked by a central tension between multiracialism and exceptionalism, universalism and narrow political interests. In the United States, even as the redress movement achieved its goals, it grew less attractive and relevant to other minority groups, though they remained engaged with the principle of reparations. At the same time, in Canada the redress movement evolved into the sort of transformative movement that the Civil Rights Movement did in the United States: it was a deeply morally engaged movement by a minority group that made citizens of all backgrounds view their government and their rights differently. The Japanese Canadian case dovetailed with the larger argument for a Charter of Rights and Freedoms: if a group of citizens and legal residents could be stripped of their basic rights at will by the government, nobody could be truly safe. It is one of the ironies of history that Pierre Trudeau, the opponent of redress, should have been the chief creator of the Charter, which was ratified in 1982. (In Quebec, where the same War Measures Act that had been used in 1942 to remove Japanese Canadians was invoked by Prime Minister Trudeau in 1970 to declare martial law against separatists, the lesson was certainly not lost). The Japanese Canadian experience continues to provide an important reference point for the preservation of fundamental rights of minorities from the oppression by transient majorities and their elected representatives, whether in recognizing the historic rights of native peoples or defending immigrants from arbitrary treatment, or ensuring equal access to marriage for same-sex couples.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

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