Reading Captain V.C. Best’s letters, it is easy to call them contradictory because of seemingly conflicting statements Best made about Japanese-Canadian enlistment, loyalty, and internment. Many of these contradictions appear in his letters after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 as Best’s opinions underwent a substantial shift. However, we can try to understand these contradictions by finding underlying assumptions that guided Best’s worldview. Three of Best’s main tenants seemed to be:

  • A belief in justice and fair play
  • Acceptance of state intervention into civilian life during an era of war
  • A rejection of the assumption that Japanese Canadians were fundamentally different from Euro-Canadians

Finding ideological continuity in Best’s letters is a way to bring a framework of meaning to the apparently contradictory statements.

Before December 7th, 1941

Enlistment

Photo of a Japanese-Canadian soldier with a Souvenir Cap
Almost 200 Japanese Canadians served during World War I. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Ministry of Overseas Military Forces of Canada fonds, A004386, ca. 1917.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 marked a turning point in Best’s opinions on Japanese-Canadian military service and loyalty. Prior to the attack, Best supported Japanese-Canadian efforts to enlist and believed in their allegiance to Canada. Best wrote to Hugh Keenleyside in October 1941 asking him to lobby Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King for the fair treatment of Japanese Canadians.

“Would it be possible to draw the attention of Prime Minister Mackenzie King to these facts in order that this harrying of a Canadian minority may cease? Surely he will heed a call for British justice!”[1]

Best followed this up with a letter directly to the Prime Minister later that month, advocating for Japanese Canadians in the military, citing their on-going commitment to the war effort as proof of their loyalty.

“I am convinced that the Canadian-Japanese would be loyal if enlisted – their monetary donations, Red Cross work, subscriptions to the War Loan etc – attest this fact”[2]

Loyalty

In addition to arguing that Japanese Canadians should have the opportunity to prove allegiance through enlistment, Best also disputed blanket stereotypes about their loyalty. Best researched the dual citizenship of some Salt Spring Island residents and found that many Canadian-born Japanese Canadians had dual citizenship simply because their parents had registered them for it, rather than because of their own choice. Best urged the government to deal with dual citizens individually, rather than making generalized assumptions about all Japanese Canadians because of their purported racial characteristics.[3]

“To get a true perspective [on dual citizenship and loyalty], individuality must be considered and contact must be made with individuals.”[4]

Internment

Lastly, though Best did not mention internment prior to Pearl Harbor, he was already highly critical of politicians like Alderman Wilson who would later lead calls for the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast. Best worried about the implications stereotyping and political propaganda for the fair treatment of Japanese Canadians. He argued that this problem had to be solved by starting with the politicians as “matters can only become worse as this political persecution is allowed to continue.”[5]

After December 7th, 1941

Loyalty and military service

After Canada declared war on Japan following Pearl Harbor, Best continued to think Japanese Canadians were loyal. However, in an increased state of warfare, that loyalty had to be proven. Reflecting on ways to test in test loyalty in this context, Best argued that

“the closer the problem is scrutinized, the more apparent it becomes that enlistment is the sieve through which all Japanese, naturalized and Canadian-born should pass. Those who do not pass this [?] process can and should, be accommodated in Internment camps. This also applies to all other nationalities with whom the ABCD are at war”[6]

A photo of seized Japanese-Canadian fishing boats near Robson Island, New Westminster
Japanese-Canadian fishing boats were seized starting in December 1941. Image courtesy of BC Archives, C-05267, ca. 1942.

This passage suggests that Best accepted state intervention into the lives of all Canadians with ‘enemy’ nationalities.

However, Best went further than just suggesting ways of proving loyalty – he actually tested the loyalty of a few Japanese Canadians who lived on Salt Spring. Best wrote Keenleyside on February 24, 1942 about his test, coincidentally the day that the federal government passed order-in-council PC 1486 which allowed the Minister of Justice to remove “any or all persons” from “protected areas” along BC’s coast.[7] Best reported interviewing the Okano family and testing the father’s loyalty. After outlining Mr. Okano’s possessions – “the largest truck, the fastest speed boat and the largest (short wave) radio on the islands” – and his wealth, Best was suspicious.

“Frankly, I was dissatisfied with him –  and in order to convince myself of his loyalty, I asked him to turn over his boat to me to use as an emergency ‘crash boat’ to aid RCAF planes in the sea. He gave it to me at once subject to my getting permission from the Custodian”[8]

Why Best felt the need or right to do this is unclear—it marked a significant departure from his previous role as a bystander or, at most, an information gatherer. Best provided little justification for the action and did not reflect on what authority he had to undertake such a test. In later letters, Best did not dwell on the situation, he does not say if his concern about Mr. Okano’s loyalty was resolved, and the incident is omitted from subsequent communication.

Internment

Just as he equivocated on questions of loyalty, Best strongly protested against Wilson’s call for a “ghetto” for all people of Japanese origin while also accepting internment as the only “solution” to the “problem.”[9] Best seemed to have two main reasons for supporting internment:

  1. as a place for Japanese Canadians whose loyalty remained in question
  2. as a safe place for all Japanese Canadians away from the potentially violent anti-Japanese sentiment on the coast.[10]

Best even told Keenleyside that internment was something that Japanese Canadians wanted.

“The Japanese are settling down to the view that safety lies away from the coast. If they stay here – they get killed by the Japanese for their loyalty to Canada. If one Japanese were caught assisting the enemy – they would be killed by the Canadians. Between two fires!”[11]

What Japanese Canadians wanted is not the subject of this analysis, but rather this comment demonstrates how Best understood his support for internment to be different from Wilson’s anti-Japanese reasoning. Best’s acceptance of internment but under certain conditions, like his belief in Japanese-Canadian loyalty makes him a complicated figure and difficult to understand either as an ‘ally’ of the Japanese-Canadian community or as an anti-Japanese agitator like Wilson.

Uniting his worldview

In trying to explain the contradictions in Best’s opinions on Japanese-Canadian military service, loyalty and internment, we have to try to understand what assumptions united all of his thoughts. This is more important than framing him as pro- or anti-Japanese because we have to understand what framed his worldview before we can even begin to conclude he was anything beyond a ‘bystander.’ Analyzing these contradictions, Best seemed to have three key underlying assumptions.

A firm belief in British justice and fair play

As explored further elsewhere, Best firmly supported British justice and fair play.

In implementation, this is likely why Best supported internment as a solution to a problem, but was also critical when it violated his sense of its ideal process. In his last letter from February 1943, Best criticized the BC Minister of Education’s proposal to deny Japanese-Canadian children the right to education. While he did not specifically mention British values, Best called for the federal government to prevent the BC legislature from acting in ways that “can only be construed as pandering to Nazism.”[12]

An acceptance of state intervention into civilian life during times of war

An old, framed photo of people at Spirit Lake Internment Camp during World War I.
The Canadian government also interned several minorities during World War I, including Ukrainian Canadians at the Spirit Lake Internment Camp. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Ernest Scrase collection, E010799783, ca. 1915.

Underlying his acceptance of internment in the first place, Best more broadly accepted state intervention into civilian life during wartime. As explored above, Best believed the government, and himself, had the right to test loyalty and to intern those who did not pass, but this had to be applied equally to all Canadians of ‘enemy’ nationality.[13] Best did not accept the discriminatory treatment that Japanese Canadians received after Canada declared war on Japan while other Canadians with ‘enemy’ nationalities were not treated similarly.

“Why only Can-Japs? Why not Can-Germans, Italians, Austrians, etc?”[14]

To Best, government intervention was to be expected, but racial or ethnic background only mattered as a reflection of realities in times of war – suspicions about potential enemies or fear of sabotage were acceptable, but only if Canadian governments were equally critical of all of Canada’s enemies.[15]

An opposition to understandings of Japanese Canadians that viewed them as fundamentally different from Euro-Canadians, especially by various levels of government

In Best’s emphasis on similarities between nationalities at war rather than stereotypical attributes of certain ‘races,’ he set out analytical categories that differed fundamentally from the politicians he protested against. Instead of accepting that Japanese Canadians were intrinsically incapable of being loyal to any country other than Japan, Best broke down the “Asiatic” vs. “European” binary that characterized the era by being equally suspicious of everyone and highly critical when Japanese Canadians were treated differently.[16] Best acknowledged that it must have been difficult for Japanese Canadians to even consider being loyal to Canada after the discrimination they had faced.

“Loyalty must come hard after the discrimination against them in which no other enemy aliens are involved.”[17]

Building on his criticism of the internment camps, Best’s belief in the fundamental similarities between Japanese Canadians and other Canadians, and the government’s obligation to respect this, explains why Best argued that Japanese Canadians in internment camps still had a right to receive the same educational opportunities as other British Columbians. Best called the BC government’s refusal to fund internment camp education an “attempt to outlaw the children,” a cowardly act that

“open[ed] the door to the future outlawry of Chinese, Indians, Negroes, Jews or any other minority that happens to displease the ‘powers that be’ in the Legislation of the moment.”[18]

Best argued that the federal government should intervene to put a stop to discrimination that could set a precedent for the treatment of racial minorities in the future.[19]

Conclusion

These three fundamental assumptions in Best’s worldview do not resolve all of the contradictions in his letters and are likely not the only beliefs that motivated him. However, this analysis provides a starting point for understanding why Best wrote, what he wrote, and how he conceived of his own actions by providing a structure and logic to his letters. What we can conclude is that when the Japanese-Canadian community was treated in ways that conflicted with his core values, Best was willing to speak strongly and to lobby officials for fair and just treatment in a time of war.

References

[1] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 10 October, 1941.

[2] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, 26 October, 1941.

[3] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 24 February, 1941.

[4] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 24 February, 1941.

[5] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 24 February, 1941.

[6] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[7] LAC, RG2 A-1-a, vol. 1749, file 2512G, P.C. 1542.

[8] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 24 February, 1942.

[9] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[10] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[11] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 3 February, 1942.

[12] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 7 February, 1943.

[13] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[14] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 24 February, 1942.

[15] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 26 January, 1942.

[16] Patricia Roy, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), http://site.ebrary.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=10203109, 8-9.

[17] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 5 January, 1942.

[18] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 7 February, 1943.

[19] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 7 February, 1943.

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