COMPENSATING VICTIMS OF WAR. Ottawa hears redress claim of Japanese-Canadians

BUILDINGS and ships in Pearl Harbor were still smoldering from the sneak attack on the United States Pacific fleet on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began arresting 38 Japanese citizens in British Columbia as suspected spies. Then, after weeks of clamor in the press and among some politicians, Prime Minister MacKenzie King announced that about 21,000 Japanese and Japanese-Canadians in the province would be moved inland for reasons of national security.

These actions are still echoing in Canada today, as similar steps against Japanese-Americans are in the United States.

The US House of Representatives passed legislation last fall to give Japanese-Americans compensation of $20,000 each for their internment during World War II. A similar bill is to be debated on the Senate floor today or tomorrow. It has 74 cosponsors, more than enough for passage.

About 120,000 Japanese-Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington were interned during World War II; 60,000 to 66,000 survive and would be eligible for the redress payments. The total cost would be about $1.2 billion, spread over five years so as not to add sharply to the federal deficit.

The National Association of Japanese Canadians has called a ``national redress forum'' today in a meeting room in Parliament. It has formed a national coalition for Japanese-Canadian redress, winning the support of more than 100 prominent individuals plus such organizations as the Canadian Labor Congress, ethnic and civil rights groups, and some major church organizations. Top politicians from each of the three major parties will address the forum.

Japanese-Canadians are seeking a lump-sum, individual payment of $25,000 (Canadian; US$20,000) from the Canadian government. That would total about $400 million.

Arthur Miki, president of the Japanese Canadian association, hopes passage of US legislation will prompt the Canadian government ``to take heed.'' His Japanese-Canadian parents were sent to work in a sugar beet farm in Manitoba during World War II.

``We feel that the treatment in Canada was much harsher than in the States,'' says Mr. Miki, an elementary school principal in Winnipeg.

David Crombie, the minister who was in charge of negotiations with the Japanese-Canadians, disputes this charge. (As part of a Cabinet shuffle March 31, Mr. Crombie resigned and was replaced by Gerry Weiner.) But Crombie says the federal government is willing to acknowledge the injustices suffered by Canadians of Japanese ancestry during and after World War II.

In a letter to Miki last year, Crombie noted that the treatment of Japanese-Canadians ``was unjust and violated principles of human rights as they are understood today.''

The government has offered to provide $12 million for a community foundation that could be used ``for rebuilding, healing, and redress.'' It has introduced legislation to repeal the War Measures Act, under which Japanese-Canadians suffered, and replace it with a law ``that will try to ensure that what happened to Canadians of Japanese origin will never happen again.''

The government financial offer is ``unacceptable,'' Miki says. His association wants compensation for lost property, the breakup of families, and other violations of the rights of Japanese-Canadians.

In an interview, then-Secretary of State Crombie referred to a governmental commission under Justice Henry Bird from 1947 to 1949 that resulted in payments of nearly $2 million on property claims by Japanese-Canadians. Crombie acknowledges that Japanese-Canadians say the commission was limited in its terms of reference and had other shortcomings. But he maintains that it would be ``difficult to redo Bird'' 40 years later.

Crombie noted that most Japanese-Canadians were not confined behind barbed wire, as were Japanese-Americans; that other Canadians suffered loss of income during the war; and that the courts in 1952 had determined that the legal rights of Japanese-Canadians had not been violated. At that time, Canada had no ``Charter of Rights'' attached to its Constitution.

``We are talking here about moral obligation,'' says Crombie. ``We are not talking about legal rights.''

Some Japanese-Americans have sued the US government, charging violation of rights under the Constitution. A case that will determine whether they have this right is pending before the Supreme Court.

Only about 750 Japanese-Canadian adult males were held in a prisoner-of-war camp - in northern Ontario. The rest were sent to the interior of British Columbia or dispersed across Canada.

Miki holds that these small towns were so isolated that they amounted to detention. Mounties prevented the Japanese-Canadians from leaving without permission. Japanese-Canadians had to pay for their travel to these locations and for their own food, often out of savings.

After the war, 3,964 Japanese-Canadians were deported to Japan. (Many returned later.) The rest were allowed to move back to the West Coast only in 1949.

Historians differ as to the war risk from Japanese-Canadians. J.L. Granatstein, a professor of history at York University in Ontario, concludes that ``military and intelligence concerns could indeed have justified the evacuation of Japanese-Canadians from the Pacific Coast.'' He notes that many held dual Japanese and Canadian citizenship, that some were rooting for Japan during its invasion of China, and that the war situation was ``desperate'' at the time.

Another historian at York, Ramsay Cook, says no Japanese-Canadian was found involved in sabotaging the war effort. He suspects anti-Asian feelings were partly behind the wartime action.

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