Above: “Truck transporting Japanese Canadian men to Tashme camp”. Image and caption found here.
On Saturday, January 14th I attended a panel called “Dispossession and Internment” put on by Landscapes of Injustice at the Vancouver Public Library downtown.
Landscapes of Injustice, in their own words, is a group that:
“[…] is dedicated to recovering and grappling with this history. We will research and tell the history of the dispossession and engage Canadians in a discussion of its implications. This history still matters. Members of our society continue to be unjustly marginalized, differences among us can still seem unsurmountable, and future moments of national crisis will inevitably arise. Our team shares the conviction that Canadian society will be better equiped to address these challenges if we continue to engage the most difficult aspects of our past.”
I was moved and shocked by what the panelists had to say as their experiences were shared by my own grandparents and great-grandparents. I live tweeted comments from the panelists during the event, I expand on what I tweeted below.
From Mary Kitigawa
“They [the Canadian government] called it a ‘program’ but it was really a slave labour situation…it was terrible”
“We paid for our own imprisonment and by the end of the war we were all destitute”
Above, panelist and local Vancouver activist Mary Kitigawa was referring to how Canadians of Japanese descent had their savings slowly depleted by the government during World War Two. Having had their personal property seized as well, these people had nothing to return to once the war was over and had to start over again.
Kitigawa also spoke of one of the first places her family were sent to be interned, a farm in Alberta. She said of the farmer:
“He said ‘all Japs should be treated as criminals,’ and that he had every intention of treating us as criminals”
From Tosh Kitigawa
Above: “Japanese Canadians being processed in Slocan”. Image and caption found here.
Panelist Tosh Kitigawa said the political climate in BC was especially hostile:
“Racist politicians in British Columbia were relentless in trying to remove Japanese-Canadians from the province”
He also noted the long-lasting effects of institutional racism saying,
“The war ended in 1945, but we [my family] were under house arrest until 1948”.
I believe it was also Tosh Kitigawa who remarked on how, after the war, the parent generation of those interned had to return to work. This was challenging, because they were all older. This, combined with the continued atmosphere of racial prejudice against Japanese Canadians, meant a lot of grown men and women ended up with menial jobs that could barely provide for their families. This was especially degrading as many of them had had successful careers before the war–an entire lifetime of work erased by the Canadian government and their racist communities.
Hostility on Saltspring Island after WW2
Mary Kitigawa’s family returned to Saltspring Island after their internment, and were met with extreme hostility from their community, RCMP, and even their own church. I was especially horrified by these stories–the war was over, but prejudice clearly still ran deep in our Canadian communities.
“The RCMP said to us ‘the services of the RCMP are not for people of your race,’ and so we felt very unprotected.”
“I will personally come down here and wipe out your family”
The latter threat was uttered by an RCMP officer to Kitigawa’s brother. Upon his return home, he managed to start and run a successful business (against all odds, I might add). His success rubbed other local business owners and the RCMP the wrong way, and he received death threats like the one above if he did not cease running a strong business.
Above: “Group of Japanese Canadian girls participating in Bon-Odori (summer festival) at Greenwood camp.” Image and caption found here.
Can you even imagine? It just goes to show that policing bodies like the RCMP and police even here in Canada have a long history of openly discriminating against minorities, a racist tradition that continues today.
Kitigawa said her family very regularly received threats of death and violence. She said her parents were so brave for returning and staying despite this outrageously volatile environment.
“The Anglican church we were all baptized in said we were no longer welcome, and they felt that we were evil people”
The above anecdote from Mary Kitigawa was especially heartbreaking for me. She said she and her siblings were all baptized in this church, and her family were regular churchgoers before the war. She commented on how, before her family was interned, they had even helped to raise money for a new organ for the church.
Despite her family’s commitment and involvement to their church, their own religious community had been poisoned by the racist atmosphere WW2 had in Canada, and her family were shunned upon their return. That must have been devastating; a place of worship provides strength and hope for so many, to be rejected by your own church after such an ordeal must have been a blow to the spirit.
Overall, the panel was very moving and informative. I’m glad to see such work continues in Canada, even decades after this dispossession took place. The relevance of this project to the government’s attitude and care towards minorities cannot be understated–we must remember so we don’t repeat past mistakes.
Learn more about Landscapes of Injustice and the Japanese-Canadian internment during World War Two here.
All images throughout from unidentified photographers, do not reflect any of the panelists quoted in this post. Images and descriptions found on the UBC Digitizers Blog, here.
Further Reading: Racism in Academia, Then and Now