Of internment and injustice

Project explores Canadian government’s broken promise to Japanese-Canadians.

Men’s dormitory in Forum building, Building K, during Japanese-Canadian internment and relocation, 1942. Photo via City of Vancouver Archives, under Creative Commons Licence.

Before success comes failure.

That’s a saying that both people, and even Canada, can relate to.

For the last four years, law professor Eric Adams has been working with fellow scholars on Landscapes of Injustice, a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) dedicated to investigating the devastating truths of the Japanese-Canadian internment and dispossession.

The seven-year project focuses on the events that occurred 75 years ago in the winter and spring of 1942, when the Canadian government enacted orders-in-council displacing 21,457 Japanese-Canadians from their homes and seizing their real estate and personal possessions.

“Recognizing the 150th anniversary of Canada’s constitution means learning from our failures as much as celebrating our successes.”

One of those orders, Order 2483, came with a promise to protect their property and return them at conclusion of the war — a promise that was never kept.

In spring 1943, the federal government began to sell all of the real and personal property it had collected from Japanese-Canadians — destroying neighbourhoods, farms, businesses and family lives in the process, signifying a moment of legal failure that neither the Canadian Constitution nor the judiciary stopped.

Though Landscapes of Injustice may not cast Canada in a very favourable light, Adams said looking at past mistakes is just as important as celebrating milestones such as turning 150.

“Recognizing the 150th anniversary of Canada’s constitution means learning from our failures as much as celebrating our successes,” he said.

Adams is co-author of a recent paper with Professor Jordan Stanger-Ross of the Department of History at the University of Victoria called Promises of Law: The Wartime Dispossession of Japanese-Canadians.

Expected to be published later this year, the article will examine the history of the Japanese internment from a legal perspective.

“In essence we trace the history of the laws that dispossessed Japanese-Canadians and the lawsuit Nakashima v Canada, which unsuccessfully challenged the legality of the dispossession. Our article is based on previously unused archival records which demonstrate the government’s creation of a trust to protect the property of Japanese-Canadians—a trust the government abandoned in its sales of the property and in its litigation strategy in the Nakashima case,” he said.

Adams said he was inspired to write the article in part because of conversations with members of the Landscapes of Injustice Community Council, many of whom lived through internment and dispossession or come from families who had to overcome those immense hardships. The article also provides an opportunity to shine light on an otherwise neglected corner of Canadian legal history and demonstrate how law can both help and hinder the enforcement of human rights, he said.

Adams credits two University of Alberta law students who were involved in the project, research assistants Lauren Chalaturnyk and Rachel Weary. He said the students were instrumental in uncovering the archival and legal materials necessary to tell the full story of the Japanese-Canadian dispossession.

Unlike the ultimately broken promise made 75 years ago, the dispossession and its importance is something the Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective is dedicated to ensuring everyone remembers.

For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

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