Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Enemy that Never Was

By Terrie Todd

In 1942, a young girl named Osono and her family left her father’s farm in the Vancouver area to live in an internment camp in the interior of British Columbia—along with thousands of other Japanese Canadians. The children did not understand what was happening, only that their parents felt unhappy about the move. Born in Canada, the kids had no reason to think they were different than any other Canadians. They didn’t understand that Japan had dropped bombs on Hawaii, or how that act made them suspect. They couldn’t grasp that both American and Canadian governments had decided their parents could no longer be trusted. They were innocent of the prejudice all too prevalent in the world around them. 

Japanese Canadian family being relocated from BC

Once in the internment communities, many of the children reported that they enjoyed the time as though they were off at summer camp. School and recreational activities were provided, and they spent plenty of time with other kids—all of whom looked like they did. While the kids knew that “somewhere, far away,” a war was being fought, it had little to do with them. The only real down side was that, for many, their fathers were away much of the time, working in lumber camps.

Japanese Canadians saying goodbye to friends

Meanwhile, here in Manitoba, farmers were overwhelmed because so much of our workforce had joined or been drafted into military service, leaving farms without laborers to bring in the harvest. The Canadian government decided it could solve two problems by offering the Japanese Canadians the opportunity to come to Manitoba to work on farms. That way, they could keep their families together. To Osono’s parents and many others, it sounded like a better alternative in a horribly confusing time. They’d already lost their homes, property, businesses, and dignity. How could this be any worse?

Japanese Canadians loaded into trucks to go to internment camps and farms

Osono remembers making the long trip by train and how she had no desire to work on a farm or be separated from her friends. She recalls her dismay at seeing miles and miles of “nothing.” Her family ended up on the Tully family’s sugar beet farm near Oakville, Manitoba. What Osono could not possibly have known is that Mr. Tully endured ridicule from neighboring farmers for taking so many of these workers. Or that she would eventually elope with one of the Tully sons. Or that doing so would cause a major scandal in the community. Or that the birth of her twin boys would restore peace and bring the families together.

Japanese Canadians subjected to racist graffiti

By the 1970s, younger Japanese Canadians, most of whom had been sheltered from the reasons behind the move to Manitoba, began uncovering the truth of their family history. More than 22,000 Japanese Canadians had been forced into this situation, and returning to their former lives, even after the war ended, had become impossible. Their properties had been sold to cover the cost of their own internment and relocation.

In 1988, after years of negotiations, the Japanese Canadian community received an apology from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and a redress entitlement of $21,000 for each individual who had been relocated during the war. Many used the funds to send their children or grandchildren to university, reversing the cycle of poverty they’d been thrust into because of their government’s choices.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signs redress agreement, 1988


Bitter war might be raging overseas, but Rose Onishi is on track to fulfill her lifelong goal of becoming a dazzling concert pianist. When forced by her own government to leave her beloved home to work on a sugar beet farm, Rose’s dream fades to match the black soil working its way into her calloused hands.

When Rusty Thorne joins the Canadian Army, he never imagines becoming a Japanese prisoner of war. Only his rare letters from home sustain him—especially the brilliant notes from his mother’s charming helper, which the girl signs simply as “Rose.”

Terrie Todd’s characters are subjected to the humiliation of internment

and imprisonment between the pages of her upcoming novel, Rose Among Thornes, now available for pre-ordering. She’s also the award-winning author of The Silver Suitcase, Maggie’s War and Bleak Landing. Terrie is represented by Mary DeMuth of Books & Such Literary Agency. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children and where her novels are set. They are grandparents to five boys.

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  1. Thanks for posting! Did Osono write a book?

  2. I have known for years how the U.S. interred Japanese Americans mostly on the west coast during WWII, but wasn't aware that Canada did the same. A Japanese American woman who worked in the school district where I worked told me about it and that her husband's family had been interred during that time. I was shocked. He lived in southern California, but she, having grown up in upstate New York, never was interred. Thanks for sharing this, Terrie.