Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote: Designated a ‘National Historic Event’ 2011

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Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

Veterans at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Vancouver, 1939. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Roy Kawamoto, Kelowna, BC.

(en française)

Resolutely determined to serve their country despite not being fully recognized as equal citizens, 222 Japanese Canadian soldiers overcame prejudice and barriers to enlistment and fought for Canada on the Western Front of the First World War between 1916 and 1918.

Within days of the declaration of war by Great Britain and her Empire against Germany in 1914, members of the Japanese-Canadian community volunteered in recruiting offices in British Columbia to fight in the western European theatre. Initially refused entry to the Canadian Army, the volunteers were subsequently organised into a battalion by the Canadian Japanese Association and professionally trained, but the Canadian government, catering to domestic feelings, refused to mobilise these troops. By joining units in various provinces, 222 Japanese Canadians fought with distinction on the Western Front, where they initially confronted anti-Asian prejudice but earned the respect of their commanders and fellow soldiers while they battled enemy forces. Tragically, nearly one-fourth of them were killed in action and 92 were wounded.

Excluded by law from the right to vote, returning Japanese Canadian veterans pointed to their war service as a practical reason why this marginalised community should be granted the vote after the end of hostilities. Building on their contribution to the war effort, the surviving Japanese Canadian veterans launched a concerted grass-roots campaign in 1920 to gain the franchise which, by law, they had previously been barred from exercising in provincial, and hence also in federal elections. They continued this campaign through the 1920s, especially through the efforts of British Columbia Branch No. 9 of the Canadian Legion, which the Japanese Canadian veterans formed in 1926. In 1931, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia voted to enfranchise the Japanese-Canadian veterans and, within 18 years, all Asian-Canadians received the full rights of Canadian citizenship. These new voters and those who followed could look to the sacrifices of the Japanese Canadian soldiers during the First World War who paved the way for their attainment of citizenship, while all Canadians should celebrate the achievement of equal rights by Asian Canadians.

In 2011, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the Honourable Peter Kent, Minister of the Environment, announced the designation of the Japanese Canadian Soldiers of the First World War and the Fight to Win the Vote as a National Historic Event. In due course, Parks Canada will consult with the Japanese Canadian community to plan the installation of a plaque honouring the memory of these brave soldiers who helped advance our concepts of citizenship while standing guard for Canada.

Further Reading & Resources
Lyle Dick, “Sergeant Masumi Mitsui and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial: Intersections of National, Cultural, and Personal Memory,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 91, Issue 3 (September 2010), 435-63.

This article was written by: Dick, Lyle