Beginning in the early twentieth century, Japanese immigrants began moving to southern Alberta to start a new life in the Canadian prairies. Employment on the railway, in mines, and in agriculture drew individuals to the area who were looking for new economic opportunities.
A significant portion of these settlers were from Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan. With Alberta becoming a province in 1905, there was a lot of work to be done in terms of developing the area, and Japanese settlers provided the desperately needed labour required for the province to prosper. Due to the hard work of the Japanese in these industries, especially on sugar beet farms, they played a significant role in the economic development of southern Alberta.
The Japanese worked hard in these industries and began to establish permanent settlements in the area, most notably in Raymond, where a large majority of the Japanese settlers chose to live. By 1914, the Japanese residing in Raymond created the beginnings of a Japanese community and established various organizations such as the Raymond Nihonjin Kyokai (the Raymond Japanese Society), which aimed to facilitate their permanent residence through objectives such as improving social and economic well-being.
As time went on, Japanese immigrants began establishing a place for themselves in southern Alberta and are recognized as pioneers of the sugar beet industry. The onset of the First World War brought prosperous times for some southern Albertan Japanese as the war greatly increased demand in agriculture. In addition to this increased demand, new jobs opened up in the area for Japanese immigrants that allowed them to economically establish themselves further. The years following the First World War mark a time of expansion of networks and connections as the settlers began creating cultural institutions in the southern prairies.
Of all these developments, the most influential in maintaining and spreading Japanese culture was the establishment of the Raymond Buddhist Church in 1929, which resulted in Raymond becoming the hub of Japanese culture and activities in southern Alberta. By the 1940s, the Japanese had established permanent residence in the area and had created various cultural institutions. This foundation created by these early settlers would be crucial in the experience of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
The treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War marks one of the most tragic and unjust series of events in Canadian history. With Canada’s declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, racial tensions were at an all-time high. Racist attitudes eventually accumulated at the federal level, resulting in the approval of Order-in-Council P.C. 1486, which forcibly removed 22,000 Japanese from the Pacific coast. Additionally, this allowed for the confiscation of all property, including homes, fishing vessels, and other possessions. Many of these individuals were sent to internment camps in British Columbia’s interior where they faced extremely poor living conditions.
In addition to BC internment camps, approximately 2,250 Japanese persons were brought into southern Alberta, the majority of whom were concentrated in Raymond, Lethbridge, and Calgary. Due to a labour shortage during the late 1930s and early 1940s, sugar beet farm owners welcomed Japanese workers. While they were not placed in internment camps like those families who moved to British Columbia’s interior, these sugar beet work camps were not much better. Common concerns were inadequate housing, limited water supply, isolation, and lack of additional work to make a decent living wage. In order to fight these poor conditions, the southern Albertan Japanese Canadians sought the support of the British Columbia Security Commission in order to gain basic human rights, and through their negotiations with the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association, eventually gained a better quality of life. These negotiations went on to play an important role in the construction of a clear and definitive definition of human rights for all Canadians.
In 1949, the last of the Emergency War Measures Act was revoked and Japanese Canadians fully regained their rights. A few years prior to this, however, Mackenzie King ordered the Japanese community to either relocate East of the Rockies or repatriate to Japan.
While the Japanese community in Alberta initially expressed interest in repatriation with just over 200 people asserting their intentions to go to Japan, in the end, only nine people living in Alberta chose to leave. Thus, southern Alberta in the post war period continued to be home to many Japanese Canadians, where they worked hard and began to rebuild their lives. Not only did the community re-establish itself economically, but the development of various organizations in the postwar period, such as the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden in the 1960s, facilitated the maintenance and endurance of Japanese culture in southern Alberta.