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A cause worth fighting for : Chinese Canadians debate their participation in the Second World War Maxwell, Judy


This paper uses the collective oral histories of the Chinese Canadian veterans, sixty years after their service in the Second World War, to explore the little-known debates that ensued in the Vancouver and Victoria Chinese Canadian communities when the men were called up in 1944 for compulsory military service. These debates uncover how Chinese Canadians understood their position in the community and the relationship that they saw existing between military service and citizenship. When Canada entered the Second World War on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands of white Canadians enlisted for military duty, while "Orientals" were barred from serving. As military service had long been seen as the ultimate test of citizenship, the government anticipated that disenfranchised people who served Canada during the war would return home and make claims for equality and for all the privileges of citizenship, including the right to vote. Thus, by denying them the opportunity to serve, the government would save itself the humiliating task of defending its undemocratic position. This all changed in August 1944 when Pacific Command called up the Chinese in British Columbia under the National Resources Mobilization Act. The British War Office had pressured Ottawa to recruit Chinese Canadians for employment in Special Operations Executive (SOE) throughout Southeast Asia in territories under Japanese control. This was the opportunity that many Chinese Canadians had been anxiously waiting for; for others, however, compulsory military service was resented. When the 1944 directive came down from Ottawa for the Chinese community to mobilize, hundreds assembled in both Vancouver and Victoria to discuss whether they should accept or reject the call to compulsory military service. Although the Chinese population in BC was relatively small, there was, in fact, a considerable clash of opinions. Ultimately, it was agreed that their objective should be to obtain full citizenship rights by serving in the armed forces. Exploring the 1944 conscription debates uncovers valuable insights into reasons both for and against military wartime service, peoples' loyalties, as well as how they saw citizenship, community, and how they identified themselves. The military service of Chinese Canadians would prove their worthiness and would secure the government's complete support for their goal, as well as the collective granting of full citizenship rights to all Asian Canadians, regardless of whether or not they fought in the Second World War. These vanguards understood that military service would, ultimately, bring about equality.

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