CHENG YU TUNG EAST ASIAN LIBRARY
A Long Fight for Justice
The Japanese-Canadian Redress Movement
Before opening the Shirley Yamada photograph collection documenting the Japanese-Canadian redress rally in 1988, I knew very little about this chapter of Canadian history, aside from a brief mention of WWII Japanese-Canadian internment camps in my high school history class.
This photograph, taken in 1988, depicts a few important members of the Redress movement — Bill Kobayashi, Roger Obata, and Charlie Kadota — leading the redress rally on Parliament Hill. Yamada Shirley Papers Collection, Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library.
Flipping through these photos of demonstrators on Parliament Hill, I came to realize the struggle that Japanese-Canadians went through to get recognition for their mistreatment. When I got to a photo depicting Roger Obata, an important redress leader, holding a sign that reads “WWII Vets for Redress,” I wondered how someone could fight for a country that systematically took away their homes, livelihood, and basic rights.
Japanese-Canadians Join the War
I found my answer in a book called Japanese-Canadian Redress: The Toronto Story, in which Mr. Obata himself explains his reason for enlisting. We realized from the beginning that removing the ‘enemy alien’ stigma was the only way we could start to seek justice for the wrongs committed against us,  he writes. At the time, as founder of the Japanese-Canadian Committee for Democracy, he felt that enlisting would prove Japanese-Canadian loyalty to the country, and that it was his responsibility to help remove the ‘enemy’ stigma.
“Despite my steady job at Cansfield Electric, despite my mother’s strenuous objections, I put my life on hold and donned a uniform,” writes Mr. Obata. As the allies sought Japanese speakers as translators, restrictions banning Japanese Canadians from enlisting were lifted and about 150 men went overseas.
The Fight Continues
Following the war, Japanese-Canadians fought for recognition of their mistreatment and compensation for their lost property. The Bird Commission of 1950 was the government’s response to their outcry, but did not acknowledge any moral wrongdoing and put very limited constraints on how people could benefit. The Commission outright excluded any repayment for lost income, disruption of education, or trauma, limiting losses to the difference between the final sale price and the “fair market value” of their property. It was on the onus of the claimants to prove the market value of their stolen possessions.
The matter of redress lay dormant until the 1980s, brought back to the forefront by the Japanese Canadian Centennial in 1977, which brought the community together with a renewed sense of pride, and the success of American redress efforts.
Toronto quickly became the centre of redress action. A city that banned Japanese Canadian entry during WWII came to be the home of more than 5,000 Japanese Canadians by 1947, as many families were forced to move east.
The Ottawa rally was organized to show the strength of the community in a final push for justice. Mona Oikawa, whose late father served Canada in WWII, remembers the demonstration: “When I saw Roger holding the placard for the vets, I was so happy because I felt my father was there in spirit and we were doing this for all the people who had been interned.”
The redress settlement was announced the following September. It included an apology, individual payments of $21,000 to eligible Canadians, and a community fund of $12 million.
Kayla Wemp is a student in the University of Toronto’s Master of Museum Studies program. After completing her Bachelor of Journalism and Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa, she decided to pursue her interest in museum theory and practice in the cultural hub of Toronto. Kayla enjoys discovering new museums, and has a particular interest in learning about local history and the stories that have shaped the city.