As a young man, Gordon Hirabayashi defied the curfews set for people of Japanese descent in the United States • Creative Commons

Many American civil rights heroes have left their impact on the world: Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X. One name worthy of inclusion on this list is Seattle’s own Gordon Hirabayashi.

Americans know Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi for his legal challenge of the U.S. government’s orders to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. During the 1980s, he successfully appealed his ruling against his 1943 conviction for violating the U.S. Army’s curfew against Japanese Americans, and used his case to call for redress for Japanese Americans. 

Yet Hirabayashi was not just an activist in the U.S. throughout the 1980s. He also lobbied the Canadian government to provide compensation and an apology to Japanese Canadians for their wartime incarceration. 

35 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1988, the Canadian government awarded Japanese Canadians with redress. At the same time, Hirabayashi fought to overturn his own conviction in the U.S. courts, working tirelessly with Japanese Canadian activists to secure redress for them a heroic deed given the fact that he did not stand to gain from it financially.

In 1959, Hirabayashi moved to Edmonton, Alberta and worked as a professor of sociology at the University of Edmonton. While living in Edmonton, he became acquainted with Japanese Canadians who settled there because of Canada’s wartime incarceration policy.

Like the U.S., Canada incarcerated all Japanese Canadians residing on the West Coast, regardless of their citizenship status. The Canadian government sent 22,000 Japanese Canadians under escort by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) from British Columbia to ghost towns in the interior, often facing harsh conditions. Some took jobs as sugar beet farmers in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Manitoba to keep their families together, often facing brutal winters and exploitation from farm managers.

From there, the similarities between the U.S. and Canadian incarceration policies stop.

The Canadian government took even harsher measures than the U.S. to permanently keep Japanese Canadians from returning to British Columbia, authorizing the wholesale auctioning of their property and forcing internees to pay for their own imprisonment. 

Throughout the war, British Columbian politicians maintained a campaign to block Japanese Canadians from returning to the province. Even as Japanese Americans returned to the West Coast in 1945, the British Columbian government maintained a ban on Japanese Canadians from entering the province that lasted until April 1st, 1949 over three years after the end of the war with Japan. 

The policy was succinctly defined by MP Ian Mackenzie’s 1944 campaign slogan: “No Japanese from the Rockies to the Sea.” As a result, most Japanese Canadians did not return back to British Columbia, and settled in eastern provinces like Ontario. 

Beginning in September 1944, Canadian government pressured Japanese Canadians to deport themselves to Japan. By 1946, the Canadian government pressured 10,000 Japanese Canadians, many of them Canadian citizens, into accepting deportation to Japan. Although the Canadian government ended the policy in 1947, by then 4,000 had already been deported.

“To deport Canadian citizens was the very antithesis of the principles of democracy, one of the first of which is that minorities are entitled to protection,” described Future Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, then a member of parliament. 

For Hirabayashi, the incarceration of Japanese Canadians was an injustice not unlike his own conviction. For over a decade, he worked with the National Association of Japanese Canadians to organize their redress campaign. 

In 1977, Hirabayashi was appointed as one of three delegates to the National Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association’s Reparations Committee. Hirabayashi and his fellow committee members published a report that detailed the physical, mental, and financial hardships that Japanese Canadians faced, and argued for individual compensation.

The report, and Hirabayashi’s subsequent lobbying, played a crucial role in persuading the National Association of Japanese Canadians to demand individual compensation instead of a lump sum payment to the community, as was initially offered by the Canadian government. Redress activist Roy Miki later argued that Hirabayashi’s “historical perspective and strong belief in individual rights helped shaped the principles of the Redress movement.”

On Sept. 22, 1988, just one month after President Ronald Reagan signed Congress’s bill to compensate Japanese Americans, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney authorized Canada’s own redress act for Japanese Canadians. The bill provided surviving victims with individual $21,000 payments and an official apology.

Hirabayashi’s work not only benefited Japanese Canadians. His research also contributed to settlements for victims of Canada’s Chinese Head Tax, a policy akin to the Chinese Exclusion Act in the U.S., and the Inuit residential school system. After his death, the National Association of Japanese Canadians created the Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi Human Rights Award in his honor. When Hirabayashi died on January 2, 2012, newspapers across Canada memorialized his contributions to both American and Canadian civil rights history. 

Poet and author Roy Miki, one of the leaders of the Japanese Canadian Redress movement, highlighted Hirabayashi’s contributions in his book Redress. In his acknowledgements, Miki thanked Hirabayashi “for years of exchanges on social and community concerns and for setting an inspiring example as an advocate of human rights both here and in the United States.”

Although he left a global impact, Hirabayashi’s career as a human rights activist began in Seattle. Seattleites should be proud to know that Hirabayashi not only fought for American civil rights, but for the human rights of all. 

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a PhD student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College, and has completed an MA from Georgetown University. His work has appeared in several journals, and he is a regular contributor to the Rafu Shimpo, International Examiner, and North American Post.

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