Though Captain V.C. Best’s opinions seem contradictory on topics such as Japanese-Canadian military service, loyalty, and internment, Best himself was aware of potential contradictions between Canada’s participation in World War II and the treatment of Japanese Canadians at home. Though Canada was fighting against Nazi Germany, Best noted that the Canadian government was beginning to implement ideologically similar policies towards Japanese Canadians.

Best framed his concerns about this hypocrisy through his belief in British values of justice and fair play against anti-democratic Nazism. Best had four sons fighting Hitler which might help to explain his unhappiness with proposals that threatened the legitimacy of their cause.[1] More broadly, both prior to and following the internment of Japanese Canadians, Best was highly critical of political actions that did not reflect his conception of true British values.

Criticizing anti-Japanese sentiment prior to internment

Prior to the start of internment in 1942, Best was concerned about un-British sentiments in local politicians. Writing on October 10, 1941 to Hugh Keenleyside, Best worried about the misuse of an unspecified ‘commission,’ perhaps the “Special Committee on Orientals in British Columbia” created earlier that year.[2] He thought it was being used against negatively Japanese Canadians, and he argued that “this is not just – neither is it fair – and neither is it British.” Best was also concerned that a reported plan to deport Japanese Canadians was similar to Hitler’s “high-handed methods.”[3]

An image of a newsclipping Best sent Keenleyside on January 13, 1942.
A news clipping denouncing anti-Japanese ‘rabble-rousing’ because of pride in British fair play. Library and Archives Canada, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 13 January, 1942.

As anti-Japanese sentiment increased in the press after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, so did Best’s criticisms of the similarities between Canada and Nazi Germany. With Vancouver Alderman Wilson’s increasing anti-Japanese rhetoric, Best compared the situation in BC to “the initial stages of the Hitler pogrom,” and sent Keenleyside several news clippings highlighting similar critical commentary in the press, including the following from unknown newspapers: [4]

  1. An article that quoted the mayor of Vancouver saying that the anti-Japanese ‘rabble-rousing’ was unfortunate, especially since the British have always prided themselves on fair play.[5]
  2. A letter to the editor by Malcolm Fukami that analyzed attacks on Japanese Canadians, noting that the attacks were especially bad since they targeted Japanese born in Canada. Building on the idea of British values, Fukami questioned the denial of Japanese Canadians in the armed forces, asking “[i]s this democracy? Is this an example of British justice and fair play?”[6]
  3. A letter to the editor by a W.H.H. Norman that noted that “most anti-Japanese protagonists adopt Hitler’s Jew-baiting tricks.” Norman recognized that there might be need for certain restrictions on Japanese Canadians, but concluded his letter with firm support for justice and fair play above all – “[if] we fight for democracy, liberty and justice, our steps must be based on these ideals even as we take all military precautions.”[7]

These letters shared Best’s disappointment with the lack of British values, suggesting that other British Columbians recognized the contradictions between Canadian actions at home and abroad during the war. The focus here is on analyzing Best’s own worldview, but his opinions on this matter tapped into a larger community of thought on the internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians.

British values in the era of internment

As anti-Japanese rhetoric increased, Best continued to advocate for adherence to British values, but the context of his opinions changed. Best continued to think that British fair play and justice were paramount, but instead of advocating for the treatment of Japanese Canadian, Best argued for the use of his values in the process of internment. While he had not argued against internment earlier, he had firmly criticized the politicians who were suggesting it.[8] Now writing in favour of internment in mid-January 1942, Best argued that “as to the c.c. camps for Canadian-born – it all hangs on the personnel in [?] as to whether the scheme succeeds or fails, according to British traditions.”[9] Though Best supported internment as the best option for Japanese Canadians, he urged officials to practice British values and traditions even in this context, rather than German ones.[10]

A photo of interned Japanese-Canadian children attending school.
Best advocated strongly for BC government funding for education in internment camps. This photo shows interned Japanese-Canadian children attending school in 1945. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board fonds, C047092, ca. 1945.

Best did not blindly believe that Canadian governments at all levels would implement internment fairly. In February 1943, Best recommenced his correspondence with Keenleyside after a year’s absence to protest against conditions in the internment camps. After learning that the BC Minister of Education had denied Japanese-Canadian children in camps the right to education, Best argued that if the parents could not pay for it, the federal government should step in and deliver funding.[11] Best felt strongly on the issue; he called the absence of educational funding an “attempt to outlaw the children,” and it posed a risk for the future,

“[opening] 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”[12]

Best continued to frame his advocacy for funding as a difference between British and Nazi values, arguing that the federal government should pressure the BC legislature to stop acting in ways that “can only be construed as pandering to Nazism.”[13]

Even in the era of internment, Best was part of a larger community attempting to ensure that any government action was determined by British, or Canadian, values rather than Nazi ones. Writing after World War II, sociologist Forrest La Violette explained why the internment of Japanese Canadians took over 9 months.

“It was, of course, the expectation of the general public that all Japanese would be picked up and whisked away very rapidly from coastal and valley points. To have accomplished this with the speed expected would have meant doing in in the Hitler fashion. To do it in a Canadian manner meant the acquisition of a housing and general living area until arrangements could be made for more suitable residential accommodations, outside the protected regions. On this basis, the actual evacuation required nine months, from early February through October, involving a total of 21,000 people”[14]

Conclusion

In his letters, Best had a clear idea of how he wanted Canada to act. He was aware that anti-Japanese rhetoric and internment at home could contradict the values that Canada was fighting for abroad. Best wanted to ensure that hypocrisy was avoided through a firm implementation of British fair play and justice in programs that had the potential to be potential Nazi-esque. It is difficult not to pass moral judgment on Best’s support for internment under certain conditions, but we have to past that to understand him and his views more fully.

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] Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), 190-91. LAC, RG2, vol. 1701, file 2247G, P.C. 117.

[3] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 10 October, 1941.

[4] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 13 January, 1942.

[5] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, news clipping, “Rabble-rouser is denounced: urges city council not to aggrevate situation here,” 13 January, 1942.

[6] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, news clipping, “Malicious, Slanderous,” 20 January, 1942.

[7] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, news clipping, “No Alarm Cause.”, 20 January, 1942.

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

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

[10] LAC, Best to Keenleyside, 15 January, 1942.

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

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

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

[14] Forrest E. La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II: A Sociological and Psychological Account (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948), 63.

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