by Lorene Oikawa
I am writing this message in Winnipeg where many events are taking place to mark the centenary of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It’s noted as a pivotal event for Canadian labour history, but it’s significant for all workers. About 35,000 workers went out on strike in May 1919 to support the building and metal trades workers who had walked out in an effort to gain rights for collective bargaining, decent wages, and a shorter work week. It may be hard to imagine the majority of workers on a six-week long strike today, but to put it into context, what the workers were fighting for were some of the rights we take for granted today: a minimum wage, a work week with days off (e.g. weekend), workplace health and safety laws, and employment standards.
From 1901 to 1920, Winnipeg went from being Canada’s sixth largest city to the third largest. The population jumped from 40,000 to 179,000. Winnipeg saw a large number of immigrants from Britain and Eastern Europe creating distinct ethnic communities. Unionism increased as the demand for better working conditions increased and there was wide public support and participation in social justice initiatives. Manitoba was the first province to extend the vote to white women in 1916. However, there was an increasing gap between the rich and poor. The First World War 1914-1918 helped pull the country out of a recession. However, the profits being made weren’t reflected in the wages for workers. The cost of living rose 64% since 1913. Factories were shut down. Some of the soldiers returning home after the First World War resented labour leaders who spoke against the war and some, but not all, soldiers also blamed the lack of jobs on immigrants. The federal government reinforced the fear mongering by changing the immigration act to allow anyone not born in Canada who was accused of sedition to be deported without a trial. Labour leaders were incarcerated to shut down their voices. Special constables were deputized, and they joined the police in attacks against workers.
In British Columbia, communities were also in turmoil, and sympathy strikes took place in Vancouver and other areas such as Prince Rupert. The fear mongering against Japanese Canadians was not new. It had started when Japanese Canadians first came to Canada in the 1800s. About 6,000 Japanese immigrated to Canada from 1906 to 1908, which increased the Japanese Canadian population to over 18,000. An Asiatic Exclusion League was formed, and in 1907 white supremacists gathered near Vancouver City Hall and set up a riot. A mob took to the streets, attacking the Chinese Canadian businesses that were closest to city hall and then targeting the Japanese Canadian community on Powell Street. There were 568 Japanese Canadian businesses in the area in 1909. The federal government contributed to the fear mongering by limiting immigration from Japan and continuing to deny their right to vote. Workers did not have any protections for health and safety nor for equity. Japanese Canadians and other racialized workers were paid less than white workers. Japanese Canadians continued to try to show their loyalty to Canada, their country. Nearly 200 Japanese Canadians fought for Canada in the First World War, and 54 never returned. They were killed and 92 were wounded. In 1919 Japanese Canadian fishers had half of the fishing licenses (3,267) and the Federal Department of Fisheries started restricting and reducing the number of licenses to Japanese Canadian fishers. The first Japanese Canadian union was formed with the Japanese Canadian mill workers in 1920. Racialized workers were not allowed to join white workers’ unions.
This was all a prelude to the forced removal of Japanese Canadians in 1942, and the continued history of governments to enact racist legislation.
One of the towns in BC that is taking steps to make amends is Tofino on Vancouver Island. Mayor Josie Osborne reached out to NAJC to seek some advice around making an apology for a 1947 motion that discriminated against Japanese Canadians by not allowing them or any “Oriental” to buy or own land. The motion was rescinded in 1997 although it was noted that there is no evidence indicating that the motion was ever voted or passed. Sada Sato, a member of the NAJC membership organization on Vancouver Island brought it to council’s attention when he was trying to buy property. His action is what prompted council to rescind the motion in 1997. The mayor spoke to a local Japanese Canadian, Ellen Crowe-Swords, who connected her to Michael Abe with Landscapes of Injustice who connected the mayor with the NAJC, and some local folks including members of the Japanese Canadian community on Vancouver Island. I discussed with the mayor other apologies and best practises when the government has included the community in a meaningful process. The NAJC submitted a written statement including a historical perspective from the Madokoro family who was in Tofino in 1942. The enquiry and subsequent discussions resulted in a formal apology taking place in Tofino Council Chambers on May 28 and witnessed by the local members of the Japanese Canadian community, NAJC, members of the Nuu-chah-nult community and others. We commend the mayor and councillors for showing the fortitude to set the record straight at a time when acts of hate and discrimination are on the rise in the world. It is important to remember and learn from our past so it will never happen again.
And as previously reported, the current government of British Columbia is intent on having a meaningful process following the 2012 provincial apology. I, as many of you, remember the disappointment with the lack of community engagement. I was (and am still) quite vocal about the need to involve the community and right this wrong. The BC Redress Community Consultations have now been set. We have the details of the meetings in separate documents which have been distributed, and it’s also posted on our website, najc.ca/bcredress Please take the opportunity to share your ideas. Your input will help shape the recommendations that will be submitted to the government of BC.