Though my analysis of Captain V.C. Best’s letters focuses on understanding him, there is a slim literature on people we could also understand as bystanders or witnesses to the internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians.
Elsewhere, I explored how Hugh Keenleyside, Frederick Mead, and Kishizo Kimura navigated the era. Adding to this small sample of notable contemporaries is Forrest La Violette, an American-Canadian sociologist who specialized in Japanese-American communities prior to World War II. Modern analysis of La Violette suggests he was a figure as complicated and contradictory as Best. La Violette’s writings suggest that he and Best shared some opinions, but the different contexts of their work places them in separate historical categories that complicate direct comparison.
Who was Forrest La Violette?
In his book, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics, Greg Robinson provides a brief background on La Violette. In his account, La Violette as a sociologist at the prestigious University of Chicago, focusing on race relations. In the mid-1930s, he moved to Washington state where he became familiar with the local Japanese-American community, working with Nisei, second-generation, sociologists and contributing to the local Nisei-American newspaper.
When World War II broke out in 1939, La Violette was living in Seattle but he moved to Montreal in 1940 and was teaching at McGill University when Canada and the U.S. declared war on Japan. La Violette initially contributed to the war effort by volunteering as a radio trainer for the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his relationship with Japanese Americans and Canadians was complicated. Despite his strong ties to the community in Seattle, La Violette said nothing publicly when Japanese Americans and Canadians were removed from the west coast. In 1943, La Violette took a leave from McGill and joined the American War Relocation Authority as an internment camp administrator, but he saw himself firmly as “an intermediary, trusted by both sides, between the camp administration and the Japanese ‘residents,’ someone who could facilitate communication and communal stability.”
Despite his attempts to stay publicly neutral, by 1944-45, La Violette unofficially began supporting several organizations that were combatting government discrimination against Japanese Canadians. However, his attitude remained inconsistent. Even though his academic expertise and personal connections were focused on Japanese communities, La Violette essentially stopped writing about Japanese Americans in 1949 and he even remained silent on redress in the 1970s and 1980s.
Because of these contradictions, Robinson is unsure what to make of La Violette; he was familiar and friendly with Japanese-American and Canadian communities, yet his silence during the war complicates an understanding of him as an ally. Robinson concludes that
“Yet out of his interest in the abstract question of resettlement, and perhaps also his fear of alienating orthodox academics by political activism that could appear to slant his work, he remained aloof from overt political activity, despite his behind-the-scenes presence in the fight to protect Japanese Canadians from post-war deportation. Worse, he remained an outspoken apologist for official confinement of ethnic Japanese, even as concerned citizens in both nations deplored the wartime policy and the former inmates campaigned for reparations. Still, both for its qualities and for its ambivalences, La Violette’s work merits further study”
Robinson is interested in better understanding La Violette, but not all academics share that curiosity. In her book, Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory and the Subjects of Internment, Mona Oikawa is highly critical of La Violette’s work on Japanese Canadians. Instead of attempting to understand him, Oikawa dismisses La Violette as an example of a ‘liberal subject’ that worked to mask the violence of internment. In Oikawa’s understanding, La Violette commended the federal government’s presence in internment camps while ignoring aspects of internment that were highly disruptive and unjust. While Oikawa is entitled to her own reading of La Violette, La Violette’s work, like Best’s letters, resists such easy typecasting.
The Canadian Japanese and World War II: A Sociological and Psychological Account
La Violette’s book, The Canadian Japanese and World War II: A Sociological and Psychological Account, expresses the contradictions and complications that interest Robinson. Published in 1948, La Violette’s book traced the internment, dispossession and forced repatriation of Japanese Canadians. Grounded in a history of racism that far pre-dated World War II, La Violette examined the federal government’s policies on Japanese Canadians during and immediately following World War II. In addition to examining the motivating causes and explanations for government policy, La Violette also provided an analysis of Japanese-Canadian experiences, from being held in barns in Hastings Park to the breakdown of the Japanese-Canadian community because of their forced dispersal.
While La Violette may not have spoken out directly against the processes of internment and dispossession, the book’s introduction frames his work as a reminder to future Canadians of the dangers of such actions. The introduction was written by H.F. Angus, a government official and UBC academic long sympathetic to Japanese-Canadian causes during World War II. Angus’ introduction says that La Violette made no attempt to pass judgement on the Canadian government’s war time policy, but his language suggests much the opposite. Angus praised the book for enabling other Canadians to “know what it has meant to be for five years a displaced person in your own land, dependent on strength of character alone for the survival of self-respect” and encouraging them to ask what democracy means in Canada: can the majority can impose rule on a minority, to the point of expelling them, or is democracy the mass recognition of an obligation to personal rights? Angus even went as far as to point a finger at British Columbians who vehemently pushed for uprooting.
“Even if we decide that our political ideals require that law-abiding minorities should suffer no discrimination on grounds of race, there remains a further question to be answered: How should society deal with intolerant local minorities which say that they are likely to resort to violence if they are not allowed to exclude from their occupations or their neighborhood a group which they dislike?”
Angus’ introduction politicized and contextualized the book by asking Canadians to reflect on what they wanted in their future and their country, and forcing them to face complex questions about the nature of democracy and rights.
Comparisons to Captain V.C. Best
In the book itself, La Violette took a measured approach to his topic, both criticizing and accepting decisions made by the federal government, but he accepted few of the biases that drove anti-Japanese sentiment. Commenting on the initial process of internment, La Violette remarked
“it was not, as suggested by the editorial above [in the book], a result of the conduct of the Japanese people in Canada. It was, rather, brought about by attitudes towards the Japanese which had been established long before the war.”
Rather than accepting that the blame for anti-Japanese policies rested on well-founded fears of their potential disloyalty, La Violette connected this period to a longer history of racism in Canada.
However, La Violette appeared to accept some restrictions on Japanese Canadians. Describing the pre-February 1942 policies of the federal government, including the partial removal of Japanese citizens from the coast, La Violette called it a period of “more stringent but still moderate policy” that was influenced by the number of Canadians being held under Japanese control in the Pacific after December 1941. La Violette argued that what followed the announcement of a complete ‘evacuation’ on February 26 was a failure of moderate government policy, writing that
“these failures were a defeat for numerous Canadians of Japanese ancestry, and for the more liberally-minded citizens of the province [of British Columbia] and of Canada.”
Like Best, La Violette accepted certain forms of internment and was highly critical of others. As Robinson notes, such opinions confound readings of La Violette, and Best by extension, as an ally of the community. While Best and La Violette’s conflict sets of opinions suggest an easy comparison, there are several key differences in context between the two that place them in different analytical categories.
Simply put, La Violette was not a ‘bystander’ to the history he was writing, as Best was. La Violette remained publicly quiet during the war and did not publish his research on Japanese Canadians until three years after it ended. Though most Japanese Canadians were still barred from returning to the coast and a Royal Commission was still assessing how to handle Japanese-Canadian property, the book was published in a substantially different climate than the one in which Best was writing. As Patricia Roy notes in her book, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67, with the end of World War II there was an increased interest in human rights and awareness of what had happened during the war years. This change in political climate likely made La Violette’s study less controversial and potentially damaging to his career than if it had been published during the war.
The timing of La Violette’s work does not diminish its importance, but it serves to highlight how much more exceptional Best’s letters were. Best’s letters are witnesses to the history they covered. Best wrote in the moment without the benefit of hindsight, without a historical record to reference, and without the backing of an academic institution. Best wrote as a private citizen, though one with military connections that facilitated his introduction to Hugh Keenleyside, and he wrote as it happened, sending letters nearly twice a week from December 1941 to February 1942.Though his letters share some ideological similarities to La Violette’s work, and are equally complicated and contradictory, Best’s position as a witness to internment and dispossession places him in an historical category far different from La Violette’s measured, academic analysis.
 Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 31
 Robinson, After Camp, 32-33.
 Robinson, After Camp, 33-35.
 Robinson, After Camp, 36.
 Robinson, After Camp, 41.
 Robinson, After Camp, 41. For information about the redress movement in Canada, see Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004).
 Robinson, After Camp, 42.
 Mona Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment (Toronto ; Buffalo ; London: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 2, 10.
 Oikawa, Cartographies of Violence, 27-28.
 Forrest E. La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II: A Sociological and Psychological Account (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948), v.
 La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II, vi.
 La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II, vii.
 La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II, 36.
 La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II, 44.
 La Violette, The Canadian Japanese and World War II, 50.
 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, 186.