Golden Miles of History

Japanese Canadians in Lillooet

The Foundation of our community created by more than half a century of our pioneers’ sweat and blood was destroyed. The lands, property and businesses that we, 22,000 compatriots, had achieved with many years of hard work, were taken from us and we were herded to the interior of the province."

- Kaoru Ikeda, Diary, 1942

Japanese settlement in British Columbia began in 1877 and when Canada declared war against Imperial Japan in 1941, the community numbered well over twenty thousand. The majority were born and raised (Nisei) or naturalized Canadian citizens.

Following the declaration of war, a group of B.C. politicians persuaded Canada's Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, to create a one hundred mile "security zone" on the west coast of British Columbia. The Department of National Defense and the RCMP did not regard Japanese Canadians as a security risk but they were forcibly and, under the Geneva Convention, illegally removed from this area.

Different kinds of settlements were created. The majority of Japanese Canadians were moved to camps called Interior Housing Projects where women, children and the aged were sent. Work camps that divided families were created for adult men, as well as "self-supporting" camps where families of some means paid for their relocation and could stay together although all Japanese Canadians were made to pay for their internment, a cruel justification for the auction of homes, businesses, fishing boats, farms and belongings they had to leave behind.

The four internment camps in the Lillooet area – Bridge River, Minto, McGillivray Falls and East Lillooet – were self-supporting and held almost a thousand men, women and children.

The East Lillooet internment camp consisted of sixty-one uninsulated tarpaper shacks without indoor plumbing, a garage, a schoolhouse/community hall and a community garden. Once they had constructed these facilities, the internees turned their attention to market gardening. They leased several pieces of land they plowed with horses borrowed from local First Nations and planted tomatoes. As they were experienced farmers who used hot tents and sophisticated irrigation systems it became quite lucrative for them and even attracted a cannery.

Initially, the arrival of three hundred "enemy aliens" directly across the Fraser River from Lillooet was greeted with suspicion and hostility in the town but relations improved once cash registers started ringing and the two communities began playing baseball together.

The arrival of the personable Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki from Bridge River to move into and set up a medical office in Lillooet's finest home in February of 1945 was another turning point. To learn more about this wonderful man, visit the Miyazaki Heritage House directly behind the Post Office on Main Street.

When the war ended in 1945, restrictions continued for Japanese Canadians. They were not allowed to move back to the coast until 1949 and many were "repatriated" back to a Japan they had never known where they faced harsh post-war conditions.

Others stayed in Lillooet and became prominent members of the community during the post-war boom years that followed. Some of their descendants live in the area to this day.

In 1988, the Canadian government officially apologized for their treatment of Japanese Canadians, recognized their loyalty to Canada and provided symbolic redress to them in the form of individual and community financial compensation. Want to learn more of the epic history of British Columbia? Pick up a map of Lillooet's Golden Miles of History Tour at Lillooet's Visitor Information Centre or at participating merchants.