Internment in North America

This was a pretty shameful thing, though many considered it grimly necessary. The country rose up in outrage against its citizens when the country of their ethnic ancestry declared war. They were excluded from coastal areas, rounded up, transported to internment camps (also called concentration camps at the time) and their possessions were sold without compensation.

They were Italian. And German. And Japanese.

And then, following Canada’s lead, the American public (goaded by American press) pushed for President Franklin Roosevelt to do the same thing. He ultimately did.

Did you know that? That Canada started the internment camps, leaving the US to follow along later — and that the US media demanded them? (As the Canadian media had before.)

Let’s look at the timeline of 1942:

Jan 16: [Canada] 100 mile coastal protected zone created that excludes “male enemy aliens” (not just Japanese). (Order PC 365)

Feb 19: [U.S.] Under media pressure, the US does the same thing with Executive Order 9066.

Feb 24 [Canada] The War Measures Act allowed the Canadian government to intern “persons of Japanese racial origin.” (It didn’t matter than 60% had been born in Canada, and another 15% had become citizens.)

Feb 27 [U.S.] First mention by US politician of internment camps for enemy aliens (by Gov. Clark of Idaho.)

Mar 18 [U.S.] Under a barrage of media, FDR issues Executive Order 9012 authorizing the internment camps. By this time, the ones in Canada were already filling up.

Racism was an issue, but not the only issue — remember that in the United States, Germans and Italians, the main ethic groups comprising Americans, were interned as well. (Just as in Canada before.)

Even back in World War I, the US was concerned about the Germans, and had hundreds of them in internment camps during the entire war. (These internments included 29 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) Since most Americans at the time had German or similar European ancestry, it wasn’t quite a “racism” issue here. Americans, inflamed to a large extent by Canadian and then US media, were panicked about attacks. Again, Canada had done this to Germans and Italians.

Fishing for a Racist Excuse

But with the Japanese, the Canadians were also concerned about … fishing. The Japanese Canadians were very good at fishing, to the point that the government had to step in to prevent them from being more successful. For example, for more than thirty years (at the time of the internments), it had been against the law to have a motor on your fishing boat — if you were of the Japanese race. That law had been challenged successfully at least once, but was still a problem. And the Japanese-Canadian fishermen, who held over 3,000 fishing permits, saw about a third of them removed by the government in the decade before the war, as well as having their buildings and property destroyed by anti-Japanese riots.

You can get a sense of the difference in how the two countries handled the Japanese right after the war. The US tried to help repatriate them, and began passing laws to compensate them for losses.

Post War Exile

But the Canadians, at the same time, were deporting their Japanese citizens to Japan, after Japan surrendered. Some 4,000 of them.

The great majority of the deported “Japanese” had never been to Japan, and many did not speak the language. They found themselves in a war-torn, resentful land full of starving residents … Ah, that reminds me of a whale of a tale, and I’ll tell ye lads, but it will have to wait. I swear that it’s all true — but it will be quite different from what you’re going to guess.

Neither country’s behavior and decisions were admirable. There were many abuses and great tragedy. But the media in Canada and the US continued to stir up people against the Italians, Germans, and Japanese in these internment camps. The media, of course, included Hollywood: By June of 1942, the movie Little Tokyo, USA made up for the US lagging behind Canada in internment by providing a plot showing that American Japanese facilitated the Pearl Harbor attack. At the end of the film, it explicitly calls for internment of all Japanese Americans. Canada had done so months before, and by the time the film came out many US camps were up and running. But hostilities and resentment resulted in the deaths of quite a few internees.

The Japanese Americans, intent on proving loyalty, enlisted en masse and were formed into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This was mostly Hawai’ians, as the mainland US Japanese were feeling the resentment against them more personally. The 442nd did so well that they helped turn the American perception more in the Japanese (and Hawai’ian) favor, and resulted in Hawai’i becoming a US state shortly after the war.

Concentration and internment camps around the world

The timeline at this link is annoying. It is entitled “Mistreatment of Japanese Prisoners at US Concentration Camps” — and there certainly was some of that. But while we had barrack-style housing, Canada had merely open barns in some of theirs, and this document mentions Canada not at all, nor the other nationalities interned. At the same time, the timeline interweaves the set-up of the Nazi concentration camps amongst the US internment facilities, trying to taint the comparatively mild US actions with the horrific slaughter of millions of Jews and others. It also gives the strong impression that the US got the idea from the Nazis. (The Nazis got the idea for eugenics from mostly US academics as I wrote here, but that’s a different story.)

But concentration camps and internment camps were not new. This list gives their grim history. I was intrigued to see, in Ireland, concentration camps for the Germans … and for the British.


Some “starting point” Wikipedia entries follow. Notice that the American entry says nothing about the fact that the Canadians were the leaders in this — it doesn’t mention Canada at all. Nor does the Canadian entry say anything about the relative timing; it barely mentions the US.
Japanese Canadian Internment
Canada’s German and Italian camps are part of the list of camps
Japanese American internment
German American internment
Italian American internment

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle