“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”[1]

Throughout his letters, Captain V.C. Best wrote broadly about Japanese Canadians in BC, and the Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring Island in particular. To better understand Best’s writing, it is important to know about the community he wrote about. The Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring was, and is, a vibrant one, with a long history on the island.

Pre-war community on Salt Spring Island

Image of a large group of Japanese Canadians at the beach.
The Salt Spring Island Japanese Young People’s Association at a picnic, ca. 1933. Image courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives, Murakami Collection, 2004005021.

The Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring Island traces its roots to the late 19th century. In 1895, 10 Japanese Canadians were listed in a promotional booklet for the island and by a 1901 census, 59 Japanese Canadians lived on Salt Spring.[2] When Canada declared war on Japan in 1941, the community had grown to 11 families, including approximately 77 adults and children.[3]

From memories of life on the island, the community was successful and hardworking. By 1941, Japanese Canadians collectively owned 1,000 acres of land and most families were well off.[4]

“Many also owned current model vehicles that they used to deliver goods to Mouats or to the creamery. They were always dressed and clean and modern clothes often sewn by creative women who made time to do so. Most homes had the luxury of a Japanese bath.”[5]

They were also actively involved in the larger Salt Spring Island community. As the island’s economy and population grew, the Japanese-Canadian community contributed time and money to the construction of an Anglican church and the Salt Spring Island Consolidated School.[6] Two prominent Japanese-Canadian families, the Okanos and Murakamis, lived on Sharp Road, near Ganges, near Best and his wife, Winnifred, who also settled by Ganges after moving from Galiano Island in 1920.[7]

World War II

Image of the Murakami family outside of a hut at the Rosebery internment camp in 1943.
The Murakami family outside their hut at Rosebery during World War II, one of several internment camps in the BC interior. Rose Murakami is in the bottom row, second from the left. Image courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives, Murakami Collection, 2004005041, ca. 1943.

With the outbreak of World War II, politicians’ views of the Japanese-Canadian community turned negative. Even before the war, Macgregor Macintosh, the Member of Parliament for Nanaimo and the Gulf Islands, was strongly anti-Japanese. When he visited Ganges in 1938, a local resident, Dr. Raymond Bush, tried to convince Macintosh to visit the Okano’s home in an attempt to change his views, but Macintosh refused.[8] Best was also aware of Macintosh’s strongly anti-Japanese stance and he wrote to Keenleyside in October 1941, worrying that Macintosh was using a committee he served on as “a hidden club to be used upon the Japanese and Canadian Japanese without discrimination.”[9]

Beyond the opinions of individual politicians, Salt Spring Island was not isolated from federal government policies towards Japanese Canadians. In her book about the Murakami family on Salt Spring Island, Rose Murakami recollects that on May 25, 1941, all Japanese Canadians over the age of 16 were registered and made to carry identity cards.[10] Best may have been part of this process; when he first wrote to Keenleyside in January 1941, Best offered his services for a rumored registration of Japanese Canadians.[11] While Best’s letters do not specify whether he eventually contributed, that was his initial intention in writing to Keenleyside.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, anti-Japanese rhetoric increased and in 1942, like most other Japanese Canadians in BC, the Salt Spring Island community was expelled from their homes, sent to Vancouver, and shipped to internment camps and farms across the country. Rose Murakami remembers that when the boat to Vancouver stopped at Mayne Island to pick up more passengers, one man, Mr. Torazo Iwasaki, got off the boat and refused to get back on. He was eventually coaxed into returning to the boat, but he did not want to leave his home.[12]

“At Mayne Island, Mr. Torazo Iwasaki got off the boat and refused to get back on. He declared that his home and property were on Salt Spring and that he was not going to leave them. He was coaxed back on to the boat. Mr. Iwasaki’s land includes all of what is now called Sunset Drive, three-and-a-half miles of waterfront the way the crow flies…”[13]

Post-1949

An image of a home, surrounded by strawberry fields.
The original Murakami house on Rainbow Road, photo taken after their return to Salt Spring, ca. 1950. Image courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives, Murakami Collection, 2004005055.

Of the 11 families that lived on Salt Spring prior to 1942, only two returned to the island. Victor and Evelyn Okano moved back in 1948, having received special permission to return to the coast before the War Measures Act restrictions were lifted. They were joined by Victor’s sister, Kimiko Murakami, and her family in 1954.[14] The Murakamis lost their property through forced sale like most other Japanese Canadians, but were eventually able to purchase a new one.[15] Some Japanese Canadians from Salt Spring attempted to fight the government for their loss of property. Torazo Iwasaki, the same man who refused to get back on the boat to Vancouver, unsuccessfully sued the government for the loss of his waterfront property.[16]

For those who returned to Salt Spring, life was not easy. Rose Murakami remembers the on-going racism and discrimination that persisted well into the 1990s. She recalls vandalism and theft on her family’s farm, the harassment of her brother by local banks when he attempted to open a business, and even, in the 1990s, a survey that ensured no residents objected to the planting of a Japanese-Canadian memorial tree.[17]

“We were not welcomed. We heard there had been a meeting of ‘concerned citizens of Salt Spring Island’ and 85 percent had voted not to let those ‘Japs’ return.”[18]

Present community

Reflecting on the history of the Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring, Mary Kitagawa sees a lost opportunity. The “blind hate and racism, denied a group of hard working, generous, productive, loyal citizens of Canada from contributing during the war years to the positive growth of Salt Spring Island, BC, and Canada.”[19]

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] Charles Kahn, Salt Spring: The Story of an Island (Maderia Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 1998), 250-251.

[3] Rose Murakami, Ganbaru: The Murakami Family of Salt Spring Island (Salt Spring Island, BC: Japanese Garden Society of Salt Spring Island, 2005), 7. Keiko Mary Kitagawa, Presentation, Salt Spring Island Japanese Garden Society, 15 April, 2006.

[4] Kitagawa, Presentation.

[5] Kitagawa, Presentation.

[6] Kahn, Salt Spring, 254. Kitagawa, Presentation.

[7] Kahn, Salt Spring, 234, 254.

[8] Murakami, Ganbaru, 13-15.

[9] LAC, RG25, vol. 3037, file 4166-40, letter from Captain V.C. Best to Hugh Keenleyside, 10 October, 1941.

[10] Murakami, Ganbaru, 15.

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

[12] Murakami, Ganbaru, 22.

[13] Murakami, Ganbaru, 22.

[14] Kahn, Salt Spring, 259.

[15] Murakami, Ganbaru, 33.

[16] Kahn, Salt Spring, 260.

[17] Murakami, Ganbaru, 33-39.

[18] Murakami, Ganbaru, 33.

[19] Kitagawa, Presentation.

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