NOUVELLES

Guerre de 14 18: les Canadiens n'étaient pas tous égaux pour aller se battre

18/08/2014 06:29 EDT | Actualisé 18/10/2014 05:12 EDT

VANCOUVER - Des travaux d'entretien sont en cours sur un cénotaphe de la Première Guerre mondiale dans le parc Stanley, à Vancouver, qui rend honneur aux soldats canado- japonais _ un mémorial qui rappelle à la fois leur patriotisme et les préjugés du passé. Plusieurs des personnes honorées par ce monument se sont vu refuser le droit de s'enrôler en Colombie-Britannique au début de la guerre et ont dû se rendre en Alberta, où ils ont rejoint les rangs de l'armée.

Des dizaines d'entre eux sont morts lors des combats en Europe, et peu de temps après la fin de la guerre, le cénotaphe a été construit, et l'on y a gravé les noms des gens ayant combattu.

Le professeur Tim Cook, un historien du Musée canadien de la guerre et un professeur de recherche adjoint de l'Université Carleton, affirme que des Canadiens d'origine africaine ou asiatique, tout comme des membres des Premières Nations, ont subi de la discrimination. "Le Canada n'était pas le pays multiculturel qu'il est aujourd'hui. Il s'agissait plutôt d'une société où les préjugés étaient solidement ancrés."

Après que la Grande-Bretagne eut déclaré la guerre, le 4 août 1914, la plupart des premières recrues étaient anglo-saxonnes et parlaient anglais, et ceux qui ne correspondaient pas à ces critères étaient simplement renvoyés chez eux, dit M. Cook. Les Premières Nations étaient traitées différemment, poursuit-il, puisqu'elles avaient une réputation de bons tireurs d'élite et d'éclaireurs. Malgré tout, le gouvernement ne savait pas quoi faire des volontaires autochtones, puisqu'il craignait que les Allemands ne fassent pas de quartier sur le champ de bataille aux prisonniers. Durant la guerre, quelque 4000 membres des Premières Nations ont servi sous les drapeaux, précise le professeur.

Environ 60 pour cent des premiers contingents de soldats canadiens étaient nés en Grande-Bretagne, 30 pour cent étaient canadiens, et environ 10 pour cent provenaient d'autres pays, mentionne M. Cook, avant d'ajouter que la plupart des recrues étaient des soldats britanniques ayant servi durant la Guerre des Boers, ou étaient membres d'une milice ou de l'armée de métier.

David Mitsui, d'Edmonton, affirme que son grand-père, la candidature de Masumi Mitsui, a été rejetée en Colombie-Britannique. "Ils voulaient montrer leur patriotisme envers le Canada. C'était leur pays d'adoption, et ils voulaient montrer qu'ils méritaient d'être traités comme les autres Canadiens."

M. Mitsui ajoute que son grand-père, né au Japon en 1887, n'a pas baissé les bras, et s'est rendu avec d'autres en Alberta, où ils se sont enrôlés dans des unités comme le 10e Bataillon en 1916.

Si le mémorial du parc Stanley établit à 190 le nombre de volontaires d'origine japonaise, M. Mitsui soutient que d'autres recherches ont fait passer ce nombre à 225, dont 54 ont perdu la vie durant la guerre. Son grand-père a reçu une médaille pour sa bravoure et est rentré au pays après la guerre, poursuit-il. Il a ensuite fait campagne pour le droit de vote, qu'il avait obtenu en 1931 en tant qu'ancien combattant, bien que les immigrants japonais n'aient pas pu voter avant la fin des années 1940.

De son côté, Russell Grosse, directeur exécutif du Centre culturel des Noirs de Nouvelle-Écosse, dit que les immigrants africains ont aussi été victimes de discrimination dans les centres de recrutement. S'il n'existait pas de politique écrite, M. Grosse stipule que le racisme était répandu.

Malgré tout, des membres de la communauté noire ont formé le Bataillon de construction no 2 le 5 juillet 1916, poursuit M. Grosse, et si ses membres n'ont pas pu combattre, ils ont creusé des tranchées et ont réparé des routes. Cette unité constituée entièrement de volontaires a attiré des centaines d'hommes de Nouvelle-Écosse, de l'Ontario, de l'Ouest canadien, et même des États-Unis.

Eric Levine, secrétaire-trésorier du Musée militaire canado-juif de Toronto, indique pour sa part que les juifs canadiens n'ont pas dû subir le même genre de discrimination. Son organisation possède même une affiche en yiddish destinée à des recrues potentielles vivant à Montréal, dit-il.

Durant la Première Guerre mondiale, 38 pour cent de tous les hommes juifs de plus de 21 ans vivant au Canada ont servi dans la Force expéditionnaire canadienne, mentionne-t-il. Toujours selon M. Levine, bien que les juifs aient fait face à des restrictions au sein de la société canadienne, principalement dans le domaine universitaire, celles-ci n'étaient rien en comparaison des pogroms et du service militaire forcé vécu en Europe.

Refurbishments are underway on a First World War cenotaph in Vancouver's Stanley Park honouring Japanese-Canadian soldiers — a memorial that stands as both a testament to their patriotism and a reminder of Canada's prejudiced past.

Many of those remembered by the monument were denied the right to enlist in British Columbia at the start of the war and had to travel to Alberta to enlist.

Dozens died while fighting in Europe, and shortly after the war ended, the limestone cenotaph was erected, etched with the names of the men who fought.

Prof. Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and an adjunct research professor at Carleton University, said Canadians of African and Asian ancestry, as well as First Nations, all faced discrimination.

"Canada was not the multicultural country that it is today," he said. "It was very much a prejudiced society."

After Britain declared war on Aug. 4, 1914, most of the first recruits were Anglo-Saxon and English speaking, and those who weren't were simply turned away, said Cook.

First Nations were treated a bit differently, he added, because they had a reputation for being snipers and scouts. Still, the government didn't know what to do with aboriginal volunteers because it feared the Germans wouldn't extend any mercy on the battlefield to those they captured. By the end of the war, about 4,000 First Nations served, said Cook.

About 60 per cent of Canada's first contingent of soldiers were British born, 30 per cent were Canadian and about 10 per cent were others, Cook said, adding that most of the recruits were former British soldiers who served in the Boer War or were members of the Canadian militia or professional army.

David Mitsui, of Edmonton, said his grandfather, Masumi Mitsui, was turned away in B.C.

"They wanted to show their patriotism for Canada," he said. "That was their newly adopted country and they wanted to show that they deserved to be treated like other Canadians."

Mitsui said his grandfather, who was born in Japan in 1887, didn't give up, and travelled with others from B.C. to Alberta, where they enlisted in units like the 10th Battalion in 1916.

While the memorial in Stanley Park puts the number of Japanese-Canadian volunteers at about 190, Mitsui said subsequent research has increased those figures to 225, 54 of whom died in the war.

Mitsui said his grandfather was awarded the Military Medal for bravery and returned to Canada after the war. He then lobbied for the right to vote, which as a veteran he won in 1931, although those of Japanese ancestry were still barred from voting until the late 1940s.

Mitsui said he didn't learn much about his grandfather's military experience until the 1980s.

"He never talked about it," he said, adding that he's proud of his grandfather's contribution.

Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, said Canadians of African ancestry also faced discrimination at recruiting stations.

While there was no written policy, Grosse said racism was something that was just commonplace.

Regardless, members of the black community formed the No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916, said Grosse, and while its members weren't allowed to fight, they dug trenches and repaired roads.

Grosse said the all-volunteer unit attracted hundreds of men from Nova Scotia, Ontario, western Canada, and even the United States.

"This was a group of men that wanted to serve their country and for whatever reasons of the time _ racism, difference of opinion, unwritten rules _ they weren't able to do so until they were able to form this battalion," he said.

"So they weren't able to fight side by side with their fellow Canadians. They had to fight together and they had to do the undesirable jobs."

Eric Levine, secretary-treasurer of Toronto's Jewish Canadian Military Museum, said Jewish-Canadians didn't face the same sort of discrimination. His organization even owns a poster written in Yiddish that was directed at possible recruits living in Montreal, he said.

"This typifies the attitude of Jews in that period, an immigrant community that was totally committed to what was then a very Anglo-Saxon attitude in Canada," he said, adding pro-British opinion was even more pronounced in Toronto's Jewish community.

During the First World War, 38 per cent of all Jewish males older than 21 in Canada served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he noted.

Levine said even though Jewish people faced restrictions in Canadian society, especially in the academic world, those restrictions were nothing like the pogroms and forced military service they experienced in Eastern Europe.

Many enlisted because they wanted to prove they were committed to Canada and wanted to protect the freedoms of their new country, he said.

"That's what they came here for, the freedom that they didn't have in the old lands, and Canada gave them that."

Once in Europe, most non-Anglo-Saxon Canadian soldiers didn't experience the same type of racism they experienced at home, said Cook, who researched the issue while looking at soldiers' letters, journals and diaries.

"Black soldiers were accepted. Japanese soldiers seemed to have been accepted. They sang the same songs, they stood shoulder to shoulder, they dug the same trenches. They went over the top together," he said.

Cook said attitudes inside the armed forces during war are often very different than the attitudes on the home front.

Back in Vancouver, Linda Kawamoto Reid, chair of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial Committee, said her group will spend about $100,000 restoring the Stanley Park monument and its pagoda-like roof.

"It is the only one nationally that we're aware of," said Reid, noting she was recently told about a similar memorial in Kincolith, a small community in northwestern, B.C., that honours Japanese-Canadian veterans and fishermen.

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