The Strange Effect of Internment Camps

To be truly Canadian, it helps to be her enemy, first.

Take, for example, the experience of German and Japanese Canadians in wartime internment camps.

Prior to the First World War, Germans had immigrated to Canada in large numbers, especially during the mid and late 1800s. They held high with immense pride their culture and traditions—Saengerfeste, Turnvereine, Oktoberfest. They built their own churches, public schools and were known as astute business leaders and industrious farmers. So large was their influence in southern Ontario, that it was reported to be a necessity to speak German if one were to live, visit or do business in one of the region’s main cities: Berlin.

Immediately prior to World War I, there was a general air of fondness toward German-Canadians that radiated throughout the country.

These German-Canadians put a strong emphasis on the German part of their identity, often more than the Canadian part. And that would later come to haunt them.

Immediately prior to World War I, there was a general air of fondness toward German-Canadians that radiated throughout the country. In 1914, the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, remarked on the German-Canadian qualities of industriousness and an ethic of hard work. “I am sure that these inherited qualities will go far in the making of good Canadians,” he said.1

Less than three months later, the Duke’s warm sentiment evaporated as the First World War with Germany erupted. Suspicions ignited. The first outward sign of mistrust toward German-Canadians happened in Berlin, Ontario when a bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I in a local city park was vandalized. The 150-pound bust was tossed into a lake.

Fear and animosity directed at those of German ethnicity festered and eventually grew into a national purge of all that was German—symbols, language, culture. Berlin changed its name to Kitchener. Kaiser, Saskatchewan became Peebles. Carlstadt, Alberta changed to Alderson. Dusseldorf to Freedom. German language classes were erased from school curricula everywhere. German newspapers were shut down. And speaking German in public was simply asking for trouble.

Quite understandably during wartime, those suspected of being sympathetic toward Germany and her allies soon had to register with authorities and were restricted in their movements. It didn’t take long before “some 8,500 German Canadians and Austro Hungarians”2 were placed in internment camps for the duration of the First World War. Roughly 3000 were POWs. The rest were suspicious. All were released after the Great War.

But history would repeat itself again two decades later when the Second World War began. Germany once again was Canada’s enemy and “all German Canadians who entered after 1922—whether citizens or not—were forced to register as enemy aliens.”3 Approximately 800 were put in internment camps.

Immigration from Germany was completely banned altogether at the beginning of the war.

German-Canadians would go on to suppress their ethnic identity during and after both wars.

In 1941, since most of the “German” internees in these Second World War internment camps turned out to be acceptably, culturally, Canadian and showed no support for Nazism, they were released. Eighty-nine questionable individuals remained for the entire duration of the war.

Nevertheless, a psychological scar had been inflicted. German-Canadians would go on to suppress their ethnic identity during and after both wars. Even the quarter-million German immigrants that came in the 1950s and 1960s held their identities in check. Surnames were changed to British sounding ones. German heritage was abandoned; the language discarded. The youth married non-Germans.

Quick assimilation appeared to be welcomed by Germans themselves. Jeanette Katherine Paul, an identity researcher, noted in her original graduate thesis that, “German Canadian immigrants from the post-war years experienced discrimination and negativity which forced them to submerge their true identities.”4

German ancestry in the post-war years was relinquished instead of celebrated in order to gain what is perhaps one of the most intense human desires of all—to be accepted. The whole experience gave way to an unhyphenated Canadian identity. Germans, it could be argued, assimilated themselves.

What is particular to Canada, is the unusual cause of rapid assimilation—external war.

This process of assimilation—a type of endogenous acculturation—into a more locally dominant culture is not by any means a unique phenomenon. Mongolian warriors, finding themselves stranded in China after the Mongolian Empire began to collapse in the 14thcentury, took to marrying locals and relinquishing their Mongolian heritage to became Han Chinese. Having travelled far and wide, Vikings too, are long gone from the cultural identity record, now assimilated and morphed into what are today ethnic Bulgarians, Russians, Danes, and so on. The historic list of endogenous acculturation, extensive and recognizable enough as it is, need not be re-visited here with any more than this cursory mention.

What is particular to Canada, is the unusual cause of rapid assimilation—external war. The nexus between external war and an increase in local identity certainly applies in the case of the Germans during the 20thcentury but it also applies to another ethnic group as well—Japanese-Canadians.

Much like those of German descent during the First World War, those of Japanese descent felt the wrath of a country that didn’t trust them.

After the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, mistrust, suspicion and a hard edge of racism were heaped heavily on Japanese-Canadians. Everyone of Japanese descent that lived within a hundred miles of the west coast, whether a Canadian citizen or not, was sent to internment or work camps further inland—places like New Denver, Greenwood and Salmo. The humiliation was said to be enormous. Much like those of German descent during the First World War, those of Japanese descent felt the wrath of a country that didn’t trust them.

And much like the German community, the Japanese community had been very proud of their heritage in the pre-war years. Proud, unfortunately, also meant insular. Marriage exclusively within the local Japanese community had the benefit of maintaining Japanese businesses, family and community and it built the foundations of ‘Japan Towns’ up and down the west coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles. This insularity however, facilitated suspicion and animosity, to become but a stepping stone to confinement.

Japanese internees were eventually released from the camps after WWII. Yet, noteworthy for their absence rather than their revival, Japan Towns never had a presence in the urban centres again, much in the same way Kitchener never restored its full German heritage.

Why?

Little in the way of research has been done on this question but a revealing documentary, One Big Hapa Family (2010) produced by filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns, set out to answer an important parallel question: Why did every generation after his Japanese grandparent’ generation marry non-Japanese spouses?

His Japanese grandparents lived in Kelowna, British Columbia during the Second World War. They were beyond the 100-mile exclusion zone and therefore not sent to internment camps. His extended family, regardless, appeared to imitate the common trend among Japanese-Canadians in the post-WWII decades. They were marrying outside their own ethnic group at exceedingly high rates. In the 1970s, the marriage rate outside the Japanese community was around 50%. One generation later, it had reached 95%. In Chiba Stearn’s extended family, it was 100%. The Japanese, like the Germans, were assimilating themselves.

What Chiba Stearn exposed in his documentary, was a pre-war Japanese-Canadian community that had been contradictory in its desires. On the one hand they accepted marriage only among their own. On the other hand, they wished to be accepted by the general population as equals with the ability to vote, hold office and not face discrimination.

The experience of the internment camps thrust a pivotal choice upon each group that required a transcendent crossing of a cultural threshold.

Animosity, discrimination and the internment camps however, had been the repercussions of their conflicting desires. The experience of the internment camps, specifically, led to a great deal of soul searching. Some four thousand individuals decided to leave and go back to Japan after the war but those that remained in Canada decided to let their sons and daughters marry whom they wished. As it turned out, love was blind, as the intermarriage rates would show. More importantly, they, such as Chiba Stearn’s own parents who were married in the 1970s, were now identifying themselves as unequivocally Canadian. And by 2002, according to the Ethnic Diversity Survey the majority of Canadians of Japanese origin—some 68 percent—felt a strong sense of belonging to Canada.

The parallel between two wars involving Germany and Japan, is that the two respective ethnic groups in Canada had been labelled as enemies and forced to choose their loyalties. The experience of the internment camps thrust a pivotal choice upon each group that required a transcendent crossing of a cultural threshold. Would they hold steadfast to an identity rooted in their old cultures of origin, or relinquish it in order to accept a new one? Both, in the end, chose new over old. They chose Canadian: unhyphenated.

In a great irony, discrimination facilitated assimilation. This brings up a rather strange question. Could it be that discrimination, embedded in a perverse enigma, is in reality, a path to unity?

Canada’s wartime internment camps—quite unintentionally—had the strange benefit of leading many of the internees to become more culturally Canadian. The head-turning lesson in hindsight seems rather obvious.

If one wants to be truly Canadian, it helps to be her enemy, first.


1. City on Edge: Berlin Becomes Kitchener in 1916” Exhibit at Waterloo Region Museum, on display 2016.

2.McLaughlin, K.M. (1985) The Germans in Canada. Saint John, NB: Keystone Printing. Pg.12

3.McLaughlin, K.M. (1985) The Germans in Canada. Saint John, NB: Keystone Printing. Pg.16

4. Jeanette Katherine Paul (2005) Submerged Identities: German Canadian Immigrants (1945-1960), Thesis, Master of Arts, University of British Columbia.

Original Article