By Nancy Demwell, Delta Museum and Archives Society
The Gumboot Navy was a reserve unit of fishermen implemented by the Canadian government in 1938 to patrol the coastal waters of B.C. against an attack by enemy combatants.
A fiercely independent group, the Gumboot Navy refused to wear the regular uniforms of navy reservists because they thought, for them, the uniforms were too pretentious. They settled on the navy cap and kept their gumboots and sweaters, duly garnering them their nickname.
The federal government initially recruited four boats and their crews. The fishermen were at first suspicious that they would be used to break union strike actions or that they could be transferred to other ships in the regular navy. So very vital was the service of these coast-savvy mariners that the government wrote for them a special contract that overtly stated the role and exceptions for this unit.
Acting Naval Commander Rowland Bourke stated, “Should the Canadian government wish to intern enemy aliens on the coast, the Fishermen’s Reserve would be admirably suited to effect this purpose.”
By 1944, there were 44 fishing vessels and 975 fishermen reservists employed to seek out spies, invading Japanese forces and fifth columnists amongst the Japanese-Canadian population on the B.C. coast.
All Fishermen’s Reserve boats carried a variety of rifles and armaments, but the more sizable seiners, trawlers and halibut boats were outfitted with mine sweepers, depth charges and First World War machine guns. Half of these boats were confiscated from Japanese owners and then given to Gumboot Navy skippers. The Japanese owners were told that they would be compensated.
North Delta had many Japanese residents, most of whom were then farmers or cannery workers, having had their fishing licenses revoked years earlier. The few remaining owners of gillnetters who fished the waters of the Fraser River had their boats and their net sheds routinely searched.
Two hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Fishermen’s Reserve was tasked with disabling all Japanese-Canadian fishing boats, revoking all existing fishing licenses held by Japanese-Canadians, then removing and confining all Japanese-owned vessels at Annieville Dyke at the tip of Annacis Island.
Yoshiyuki Okamura, who was 17 at the time, watched from across the river in North Delta as the ranks of the confiscated boats grew.
“There was so much racism back then in the newspapers and with the politicians. We expect it,” he said, adding that in the Kennedy community, “there wasn’t much [racism] there.”
Tamiko Suzuki reported that when the boats were interned, the reservists were “nice enough. They did their job but they weren’t mean about it.”
Nancy Demwell is a board member with the Delta Museum and Archives Society.