Contents: Forced Dispersal Obstacles to Education School as Community
Having met many of her Japanese Canadian friends through both classes and work on the school newspaper, the Q.E. Vue, Joan and her correspondents were all of middle- and high school-age when an Order in Council1 enforced a restricted zone on the entire west coast of B.C. When subsequent Orders established the creation of internment camps in the Interior, along with agreements with the provinces of Alberta and Manitoba to employ Japanese Canadians for labour on sugar beet farms, Joan’s friends had their studies abruptly halted.
In a letter sent on January 3rd, 1945, Yoshio Nakamura includes a piece of narrative writing for Joan to edit that describes the beginning stages of forced dispersal from the first-person perspective of a student. Though it is unclear whether this narrative is meant to be a precise retelling of his own experience or a fictionalized version, Yoshio indicates that he wishes for the narrative to read like a “long letter to a friend”, and not a story or essay. Yoshio writes:
After that life at school was swell for awhile [sic]. The reason why I say "For a while," is because in March all the boys like myself "the Japanese-Canadians" were called into a counselling room and were told that we were barred from further participation in the high school army cadet corps. In all my school career that was my first and worst heart-breaking experience. [...]
You should have seen the expression on their faces; dumbfounded; and looked as if they were all asking the same question "Why do they have to do this to us?" Then sadly with bowed heads we silently listened. I couldn't imagine such an order coming from a ministry of Education. The Cadet Corps was one subject in the curriculum I loved very much. [...]
Around about this time studying became less and less important to me and to a lot of others like myself. Long before the Easter holiday I hardly ever took my books home and did not prepare my lessons. The time came one April afternoon when we were told that we were going to Alberta. This was the sixteenth day of April 1942.
Image description: Kindergarten class at Lemon Creek Camp, 1944/45.2
Opportunities for education were highly dependent on the conditions of forced dispersal for each family. The federal government initially tried to shift the responsibility of maintaining schooling for Japanese Canadian children to provincial governments and Ministries of Education3. Though the B.C. Security Commission [BCSC] established by the federal government did eventually start correspondence courses for some 60 high school students in B.C., these were primarily taught by untrained volunteers, some of whom were incarcerated in the camps themselves, or who had only just graduated high school4.
These correspondence courses were only offered to students interned at Hastings Park or those who had been sent to the surrounding camps in the Interior. However, most of the correspondents featured in this exhibit are part of the number of families who were sent to work on sugar beet farms in the Prairies, and were thus subject to different limitations.
Obstacles to Education
Though Japanese Canadian students in Alberta and Manitoba were eventually able to enroll in local high schools, they faced a number of challenges to actually receiving their education. In Alberta, a federal grant offered to the provincial government was meant to ensure schooling for students who lived and worked on the beet farms, yet parents were expected to pay a prohibitively expensive, additional tuition fee of $70 per child each year.5
Transportation also proved difficult, with most of the sugar beet farms being several miles away from towns. Sumi Mototsune mentions riding a crowded van belonging to a cheese factory to and from school in the winter months. In a later account, Yoshio notes that since Japanese Canadian students were not eligible to take the school bus, as they were not considered taxpayers, he had no choice but to walk several miles to catch a Greyhound bus to school.6
Many of Joan’s correspondents also describe the difficulties of balancing school with the many demands of sugar beet farming. The assignment of Japanese Canadian families to sugar beet farms, as opposed to road camps in the Interior, was often framed by the government and media as a personal choice. However, road camps would have meant that families would be split up, and sugar beet farming was an option given primarily to families with children old enough to contribute to farm work7. The thinning and harvesting season would therefore dictate when students were available to attend school, sometimes delaying their studies by several months.
When we go back to school in September, we will have to repeat the same grade. Even if I go back to QEHS, I won’t be in the same grade as you and the pupils in the present Grade 9. I don’t know if I will be able to go back to school. It all depends on how our sugar-beets turn out. I really want to go back to school though.
Jackie Takahashi articulates similar concerns around being older than his peers, writing, “In Alberta school started on the 10th of October and I just started on the 21, that’s yesterday. It feels sort of funny to be in grade 10 with all the younger pupils.”
Though the postponement of their studies was entirely out of their control, the high school administration would regularly dock credits from the students’ records. This would not only hold students back from graduating on time with their former peers in B.C., but would also cost their parents another year of extraneous tuition fees.
They said that I cannot receive my Senior Matric this year 'cause the credits are rather on the low side. That is, they took away so much that I'll have to go back another year. Same with Tom Tsukishima.
School as Community
Despite the many discriminatory restrictions in place for them in their new schools, Joan’s correspondents also frequently speak about school as a source of community and hope. Jackie, Yoshio, and Teruko Ikeda all mention the joy of student socials and of the recreational activities offered through school. For many of these students, school offered a rare chance to meet old friends who had also been displaced and be reminded of the community they had been a part of in B.C.
I’ve seen Jackie, Johnny, Tan, Tashiko, Suzie etc a few times. I’m sure glad Sumi is with me. so you see I’m not so lonely as I thought I’d be when I first started school.
The correspondents also write romantically about their time spent with Joan and other friends at Queen Elizabeth Secondary, reminiscing about their shared classes and interest in the Q.E. Vue. Though the government sought to define these correspondents as both enemies of the state and just a source of manual labour, the content of these letters—school dances, homework, basketball teams—are a stark reminder of what they really were: school children.
"Say, thanks for sending me the Q.E. Vue Joan, it sure was swell. To tell you the utmost truth I just about felt like crying when I read about the graduation and to think that I would have been there too. Gosh! I sure had a swell time while I attended good old, I mean new Q.E."
To explore more about the experience of Japanese Canadian students during the period of forced dispersal, as expressed in the Gillis letters, check out the subject visualization page.
1. Order in Council, P.C. 365, January 16, 1942.
2. University of British Columbia Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. Japanese Canadian Research Collection. JCPC-19-033. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0049174.
3. Oikawa, Mona. “Gendering the Subjects of the Internment: The Interior Camps of British Columbia” In Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment, 137. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
4. Ishikawa, Wakako. (2003). Japanese-Canadian Education during the World War II Internment, 78 (Publication No. 0612781437) [Master’s thesis, University of Toronto]. Theses Canada.
5. Ketchell, Shelly Ikebuchi. “Carceral Ambivalence: Japanese Canadian ‘Internment’ and the Sugar Beet Programme during WWII.” Surveillance & Society 7, no. 1 (2009): 25. https://doi.org/10.24908/ss.v7i1.3305.
6. Nakamura, Yoshio. “Richard Yoshio (Dick) Nakamura.” In Honouring Our People: Breaking the Silence, edited by Randy Enomoto, 188-191. Burnaby, BC: Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association, 2016.
7. Oikawa, Mona. “Economies of the Carceral: The ‘Self-Support’ Camps, Sugar Beet Farms, and Domestic Work.” In Cartographies of Violence: Japanese Canadian Women, Memory, and the Subjects of the Internment, 173. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.