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Bird Commission in Context

Reading the Case Files

Background on the Bird Commission and claimant hearings

The Royal Commission on Japanese Claims, known as the Bird Commission for Justice Henry I. Bird at its helm, was appointed on July 18, 1947. The Commission opened that December and held its first hearings in Kamloops. Commissioner Bird heard evidence for the next three years, travelling to the dispersed claimants across Canada, and submitted his final report in spring 1950.

Cabinet appointed the Bird Commission in response to growing opposition to the discriminatory federal policies, support for Japanese Canadians, and calls for investigation into the forced sale of their property. For Cabinet, the commission became a useful way to signal that the wartime policies affecting Japanese Canadians were coming to a close (even if certain restrictions were in action) and to demonstrate the government’s accountability.

When looking at the case files, it’s important to remember that the Bird Commission had very narrow Terms of Reference. The Commission would only consider claims for property loss arising from sales made at less than fair market value at the time of sale and from loss, vandalism, or theft while in the care of the Office of the Custodian. (These restrictions were key to making the government look good.)

These Terms of Reference meant that claimants had to prove the market value of their property (or make corrections to the government’s appraisals) and/or prove that it had been damaged while under the care of the Office of the Custodian.

These Terms of Reference excluded:

  • where property decreased in value between the time the owners were forcibly uprooted and the time of sale,
  • where Japanese Canadians made their own arrangements for their property when they were forcibly uprooted,
  • and instances where claimants had little direct evidence of the Office of the Custodians’ sales.
  • Furthermore, the Commission would not consider claims from Japanese Canadians who had been deported.

The important thing to remember when reading the case files is that the claimants are trying to prove property loss under a very particular definition. The Terms of Reference prevented many people who had lost property from submitting claims.

As the hearings progressed in 1948 and 1949, the claimants’ lawyers tried to work the Commission in Japanese Canadians’ favor and expand the Terms of Reference. Out of a concern over time, the Commission staff and Japanese Canadians’ counsel tried to streamline the hearing process. This streamlining further limited Japanese Canadians’ opportunity to contest the sale of their property directly.

So, when looking at the Bird Commission hearing transcripts, it’s fair to say that claimants likely had much more to say about their losses and the government policies than what made it into the record.

What the records do offer is:

  • a glimpse into the arrangements the claimants made for their property when they were forcibly uprooted
  • a perspective of what they claimed in 1947, including evidence like maps, lists, correspondence, and photographs
  • and evidence of how they argued their case for compensation to the commission, even within the restricted terms.

(In rare cases, however, like when claimant Kenichi Maeno describes the appraiser’s value as “ridiculously low” on one form, you do get a glimpse of the claimant’s opinion.)

One way to see the Bird Commission case files is that these claimants chose to hold the state accountable for the damages inflicted by the forced uprooting and dispossession, even if it was within a restricted arena. They are an incredible record of perseverance, determination, and resilience.

A note on the first page of each hearing file and the compensation process:

  • The first page of each Bird Commission file (on green paper) is the settlement that the claimant received. After three years of hearing claims, and assessing evidence and legal arguments submitted by Japanese Canadians’ legal counsel and the government counsel, Commissioner Bird awarded compensation at a set rate for each category of property. So, property sold under the Veteran’s Land Act was awarded an additional 80% of the original sale (perhaps the best rate out of the categories), and urban property was awarded 5% (perhaps the worst rate of compensation out of the categories). These forms show how claimants received compensation from the Bird Commission. 

A note on the hearing transcripts:

  • One of the most powerful aspects of the Bird Commission case files is that a stenographer transcribed the hearing proceedings verbatim. This means that you can follow the proceedings—with the lawyers questions and claimants’ response—like a script. At the beginning of these transcripts, the stenographer will note whether the claimant used a translator or not. The Japanese-Canadian claimants (largely issei) used translators around half the time meaning that the words that are ascribed to the claimants are actually what the translator said. In that case, there’s a chance that the translator simplified the claimants’ response. If the claimant didn’t use a translator, however, it’s fair to say that those were the words that claimant spoke.

Further background on the Bird Commission can be found in chapter 8 (Seeking Civil Rights and Compensation) of Ann Sunahara’s Politics of Racism. The book is available online here: http://www.japanesecanadianhistory.ca/

This document created by Kaitlin Findlay (kfindlay@uvic.ca).

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