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

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.

Gert Harding


Gert Harding

Gert Harding

Are you starved, as I am, to read more books about heroic Canadian women? To see movies on the big screen about brave women – from any country – who stand up to oppression and help change the course of humanity? Not many know it, but Canada has such a heroine.

Gert Harding, who grew up on a farm in rural New Brunswick, joined one of the most radical groups of women ever to fight for a woman’s cause: the militant suffragettes of Great Britain (members of the Women’s Social and Political Union were dubbed suffragettes by the press.) When the British Government finally granted women a partial vote in 1918, Gert was one of the longest-lasting and highest-ranking suffragettes. In researching her biography, I came across only one other Canadian who even joined the WSPU, which numbered over 4000 members at its height.

In 1912, aged 23, Gert Harding was invited to join her sister’s family in London, England. Within days, she witnessed her first poster parade of women carrying placards with slogans such as “Votes for Women” and “No Taxation without Representation”. Drawn to the cause (which had begun 47 years earlier), she was soon a paid WSPU organizer, financially independent at last.

Gert’s first big ‘job’ was to stage a midnight attack on rare orchids at Kew Gardens. A dozen newspapers reported ‘the outrage’, two claiming it must have been male sympathizers to the cause, as only men could scale the six-foot wall to escape.

Deciding not to perpetrate the violence anymore, Gert worked on the underground newspaper, “The Suffragette”, eventually becoming its editor; she was private secretary to Christabel Pankhurst, the brains of the organization; and she headed up the secret bodyguard of women assigned to protect their leader, Mrs Pankhurst, from constant re-arrest by Scotland Yard. The bodyguard couldn’t out-fight constables, but they outwitted them on many occasions. Gert worked undercover, sneaking through back alleys at night and wearing disguises by day. Such engagement undoubtedly helped when she later worked as a social worker in the slums of New Jersey and was fondly remembered in her eventual retirement in Rothesay, New Brunswick.

The story of Gert and her comrades should be debated and celebrated. Canadian school books skim over the story of how, through 50 years of ignoring or lying to suffrage activists, jailing militants as common criminals (rather than political prisoners) and force-feeding those who chose to hunger-strike, the British Government escalated the confrontation. Hundreds of women went from every legal means of protest to noisy demonstrations, window-breaking and eventually bombing and burning empty buildings. Such tactics were always used in the past by men fighting for the vote, but with many deaths. The suffragettes never harmed ‘so much as a canary in a cage’. A feminine form of violent protest, if ever there was one.

Gert Harding deserves status as one of Canada’s most exciting political figures, male or female. She risked family support and her reputation, health and physical freedom in pursuit of the basic right of democracy for women. As her great-niece (did I mention that?), I’m proud of this resourceful, passionate, humourous and brave heroine. Some may condemn the suffragettes’ tactics, but without their radical edge of the movement, it might have been decades longer before Canadian and American women were granted the franchise after WWI. Women in France couldn’t vote until 1944.

Does Gert deserve a place in Canadian history books?


Further Reading and Resources

Gretchen Wilson, ‘Gertrude Harding, militant suffragette,’ section 15.ca, http://section15.ca/features/people/1999/12/07/gertrude_harding/

With All Her Might: The Life of Gertrude Harding, Militant Suffragette (Goose Lane Editions, 1996).

Alison Prentice et al, ‘Marching into the New Century,’ chapter 8 of Canadian Women: A History, 2nd ed, (Harcourt Brace, 1996).

Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1974).

USA Suffrage Literature

From the early 1850s, when an organized national women’s rights movement emerged, to 1920, when the 19th Amendment enfranchising women was ratified, U.S. women writers from a variety of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds published hundreds of short stories, novels, poems, plays, essays and conversion narratives in support of woman suffrage. In an essay entitled “The Truth of Fiction, and Its Charms”, published in the first issue of the very first American journal devoted to women’s rights, The Una (1853), for example, an anonymous editor argued that popular fiction was a valuable rhetorical form for the emergent movement. “[Fiction] brings the truth of nature—the probable, the possible and the ideal—in their broadest range and utmost capabilities into the service of a favorite principle, and demonstrates its force and beauty, and practicability, in circumstantial details, which like a panorama, presents an image so like an experience that we realize it for all the purposes of knowledge, hope and resolution” (qtd. Petty 4). In 1892, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the President of the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association, reiterated this appreciation of literature’s ability to move people to embrace a “favorite principle: “I have long waited … for some woman to arise to do for her sex what Mrs. Stowe did for the black race in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ a book that did more to rouse the national conscience than all the glowing appeals and constitutional arguments that agitated our people during half a century” (Stanton, Pray, Sir, vi-vii). Many suffrage supporters responded to Stanton’s call, particularly in the final two decades of the campaign.

An astonishing number of canonical and popular US writers voiced their support of woman suffrage through literary works. “Fanny Fern”, for example, wrote pro-suffrage essays such as “Independence” and “Shall Women Vote?”. Harriet Beecher Stowe published serialized fiction such as My Wife and I and fictional dialogues such as the Chimney Corner  that expressed moderate support for suffrage. Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps authored suffrage literature for children. Twentieth-century authors Gertrude Atherton, Mary Johnston, Zona Gale, Edna Ferber, and Mary Austin all wrote novels that describe aspects of American suffrage in moving detail. Early twentieth-century poets–Frances Harper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marianne Moore, and Edna St. Vincent Millay to name just a few–wrote poetry in support of suffrage or in praise of suffragist leaders. Modernist. Even avant-gardist Gertrude Stein considered the suffrage theme when she wrote an opera libretto memorializing Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All twenty-five years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In addition to these more canonical figures, many popular writers–sensation novelist Lillie Devereux Blake, satirical poet Alice Duer Miller, and Western writer Abigail Scott Duniway–also made significant contributions to the suffrage literary tradition.

Examples from this extensive archive of literary works about suffrage appear in my Treacherous Texts: US Suffrage Literature 1846-1946 , an anthology designed to showcase creative interventions in the suffrage campaign, which are often overshadowed by oratory and other discursive forms. These creative works—fiction, poetry, drama, and autobiography as well as cartoons, banner slogans and song lyrics–should remind us of the importance of literature to political battles both in the past and today.

Resources and Further Reading

Alcott, Louisa May. “Cupid and Chow Chow,” in Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, vol. 3. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880. 5–40.

Atherton, Gertude. Julia France and Her Times. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Blake, Lillie D. Fettered for Life or Lord and Master. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1874.

—-. “A Divided Republic: An Allegory of the Future,” in A Daring Experiment and Other Stories. New York: Lovell, Coryell, 1892:  346–60.

Duniway,Abigail Scott. Edna and John [1876]. Reprint, Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2000.

Ferber, Edna. Fanny Herself. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1917.

Fern, Fanny. Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Ed. Joyce Warren. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Fordham, Mary Weston “Atlanta Exposition Ode.” In She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Janet Gray. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997. 270–271.

Gale, Zona. “Friday.” Century Magazine 88, no. 4 (August 1914): 521–24.

—–. Friendship Village. New York: Macmillan, 1908.

—–. Mothers to Men. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

—–. Peace in Friendship Village. New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. In This Our World. [1899]. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Harper, Frances W. “The Deliverance.” In Sketches of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1893. 6–16.

—–. “Aunt Chloe’s Politics,” In Sketches of Southern Life (1871), in A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader, ed. Frances Smith Foster .New York: Feminist Press, 1990. 204–205.

Johnston, Mary. Hagar. [1913]. Richmond: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Jonas, Rosalie. “Brother Baptis”, The Crisis. September 1912: 247.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Upon this marble bust that is not I,” in The Buck in the Snow (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 66.

Miller, Alice Duer. Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times. New York: George H. Doran and Co., 1915.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. “Trotty’s Lecture Bureau (Not a Trotty Story, but a Trotty Scrap. Told for Trotty’s Friends.),” St. Nicholas Magazine 4, no. 7 (May 1877): 454–55.

Stein, Gertrude. The Mother of Us All. in Last Operas and Plays, ed. Carl Van Vechten (1949; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. My Wife and I: or Henry Henderson’s History. 1871.

—–. Uncle Tom’s Cabin [1852]. New York: Penguin, 1986.

“The Truth of Fiction, and Its Charms”, The Una vol. 1 no. 1. 1853.

Zink-Sawyer, Beverly Ann. From Preachers to Suffragists: Woman’s Rights and Religious Conviction in The Lives of Three Nineteenth-century Clergywomen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989.