Captain V.C. Best wrote his first letter in January 1941 to H.L. Keenleyside, Assistant Under-Secretary at External Affairs, to offer his assistance with the registration of Japanese Canadians. Because of unspecified personal experience, Best thought that he would be a good intermediary between Salt Spring Island’s Japanese-Canadian community and the federal government.[1]

“I am genuinely interested in these people, know a great many, have many friends among them – and can get along without any friction or restraint. Furthermore I can command assistance in interpretation or other service if needed. I wish to offer my services for a post with this work, if such a post is available.”[2]

Understanding the motivations behind Best’s offer is difficult. While his writings suggest a friendliness with local Japanese Canadians, Best offered to support a practice that discriminated against Canadian citizens and foreign nationals with a specific ethnic background. This government discrimination against Japanese Canadian would evolve into internment and dispossession, and this complicates how Best’s proposal is understood: did Best support the discriminatory policies of the federal government during this era, or was he trying to make the best of a bad situation by lending his personal expertise?

We might never know which, but historical accounts of government officials Hugh Keenleyside and Frederick Mead, and Japanese-Canadian Kishizo Kimura suggest that Best was not alone in his attempt to reconcile personal beliefs with participation in federal government policies.

Hugh Keenleyside and Frederick Mead

A photo of Hugh Keenleyside sitting in a library.
Hugh Keenleyside, ca. 1984. Image courtesy of A Portrait of Canada, Harry Palmer photographs, http://www.aportraitofcanada.ca/?p=1964.

In Ann Sunahara’s book, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, she commends Keenleyside, Best’s main correspondent, and his colleague Frederick J. Mead, RCMP Assistant Commissioner, for using their positions to advocate for Japanese Canadians. In her account, Keenleyside was a sympathetic administrator who advocated strongly against the removal of Japanese Canadians from the BC coast and reminded authorities, though unsuccessfully, of the personal rights of Canadian and naturalized citizens.[3]

“The uprooting was, in the words of the Japanese Canadians’ chief defender Hugh L. Keenleyside, “a cheap and needless capitulation to popular prejudice fanned by political bigotry or ambition or both.””[4]

Similarly, Mead was responsible for implementing many federal policies but he acted where he could. When he was tasked with removing Japanese Canadians from ‘defense zones’ along BC’s coast in 1942, he slowed down the process by following the exact letter of the law, which required a complicated set of permissions, rather than its spirit of quick removal.[5]

“By refusing to act without direct authorization from the very busy Minister of National Defence, J.L. Ralston, [Mead and the RCMP] had delayed the removal of any Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry until the Order-in-Council uprooting all Japanese Canadians prevented any further delays.”[6]

Though part of the administration that implemented internment, Keenleyside and Mead’s personal beliefs guided their actions in the framework of government policy. It is likely that Best viewed Keenleyside and Mead as ideological allies in his aim to reduce anti-Japanese sentiment. Writing to Keenleyside in early 1942, Best expressed his concern that strong anti-Japanese rhetoric could influence attitudes towards other foreign nationals and he called the “panic in B.C over the Japanese…contemptible.” Closing his letter, Best thanked Keenleyside for his recognition of the grave situation for Japanese Canadians in BC:

“May I add that your sympathy and understanding of the Oriental Problem, and your courtesy in finding time to reply to my previous letters, has left me with a desire to assist you in any way I can” [7]

That Best supported Keenleyside out of all the government officials he could have written to suggests that Best had a worldview like Keenleysides’ and he similarly attempted to use his position to soften government directives on Salt Spring.

Kishizo Kimura

A photo of a fishing boat ledger form with the date 5/18/42 in the top right corner.
From the Kishizo Kimura fonds, this is a form from the fishing boat ledger and contains information about a confiscated fishing vessel. Image courtesy of Nikkei National Museum, Kishizo Kimura fonds, 2010.4.4.1.385.

Comparisons between Best and government officials may be relatively straightforward, but can we compare him Japanese Canadians who occupied similar roles?

Narratives of Japanese Canadian resistance during this era are emerging, and the history of Kishizo Kimura stands out.[8] Kimura sat on the committees that oversaw the sale of Japanese-Canadian fishing boats and property in 1942-43, acting as an intermediary between the Japanese-Canadian community and the federal government.[9]

In his article, Jordan Stanger-Ross explains Kimura’s surviving memoir as an attempt to reconcile his self-perception as an anti-racist with what some might see today as actions that betrayed Kimura’s community. Kimura used his memoir to explain to future generations that his collaboration was the most effective form of resistance during a period when Japanese Canadians were being displaced, dispossessed and deported with few formal channels for recourse.[10]

“Kimura explains his participation in this light: his was an effort to prevent the eruption of violence on the home front in the early days of the war. Once on the committee, Kimura continued to see his role in this fashion, urging the committee to take a public position against media characterizations of all Japanese Canadians as ‘enemies’ and the fishing vessels as ‘seized’ or ‘spoils of war’.”[11]

By agreeing to serve on advisory committees, Kimura attempted to use his agency to avoid, or reduce, anti-Japanese racism amongst committee members.

Best could have similarly seen himself as an intermediary that could mitigate anti-Japanese sentiment during the registration process, but this may not be a fair comparison to draw. Kimura was a member of the community affected by the policies he was working against and his participation brought him closer to the decision-making process than Best likely ever was. While Keenleyside often replied to Best, there is no indication that Best’s letters influenced any action besides providing a private citizen’s opinion.

However, both individuals importantly demonstrate, as Stanger-Ross suggests for Kimura’s memoir, “the ways in which individuals have grappled with and communicated their own experiences of some of Canada’s most difficult history.”[12] Best’s role and motivations may have been different from Kimura’s, but Best’s letters, like Kimura’s memoir, show that internment and dispossession was a process that many struggled to understand and respond to.

Conclusion

Without knowing more about Best’s personal history, we cannot know what his initial intentions were in offering his help with Japanese-Canadian registration. It could have been because of a belief in the need to register Japanese-born residents, or because he thought his knowledge could make an inevitable process less painful. Comparisons to civil servants and, perhaps, members of the Japanese-Canadian community suggest that a larger community of Canadians existed who were concerned with what was happening to Japanese Canadians during World War II. To what extent Best belonged to that community is debatable and it depends how we consider his intentions in the context of his letters.

References

[1] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 9 January, 1941.

[2] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 9 January, 1941.

[3] Ann Sunahara, The Politics of Racism, (Ottawa: Ann Gomer Sunahara, 2000), Chapter 2. http://www.japanesecanadianhistory.ca/Chapter2.html

[4] Sunahara, The Politics of Racism, Chapter 2, quoting H.L. Keenleyside, “The Canada-United States Permanent Joint Board of Defence, 1940Ð1945,” International Journal, vol. 16 (1960Ð61), p. 63.

[5] Sunahara, The Politics of Racism, Chapter 3. http://www.japanesecanadianhistory.ca/Chapter3.html

[6] Sunahara, The Politics of Racism, Chapter 3.

[7] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 1 January, 1942.

[8] For examples of narratives of resistance, see Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004) and Mona Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment (Toronto ; Buffalo ; London: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

[9] Jordan Stanger-Ross, “Telling a Difficult Past: Kishizo Kimura’s Memoir of Entanglement in Racist Policy,” BC Studies 181 (2014): 39-62.

[10] Stanger-Ross, “Telling a Difficult Past,” 46-48.

[11] Stanger-Ross, “Telling a Difficult Past,” 53.

[12] Stanger-Ross, “Telling a Difficult Past,” 59.

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