Unpacking A Call For Justice

“The easiest thing in the world is to speak of freedom, equality, and justice for all when times are good.” David Suzuki, Redress as a Canadian Issue. 1984.

I have the great privilege of unpacking the many pieces that make up the traveling exhibition entitled A Call for Justice: Fighting for Japanese Canadian Redress (1977-1988), which comes to us from the Nikkei Museum in Vancouver. I am new to this place and I don’t know much of the history here in the Grand Forks area. Specifically, I have become aware of the deep history of the disenfranchisement of Japanese Canadians, the majority of whom were citizens by birth or through naturalization, during the Second World War. This dark period in Canada’s history, one of many blights, is very present here in Grand Forks, British Columbia, which is nestled between a former internment camp to the west (Greenwood) and a self-supporting site to the northeast (Christina Lake). As I work over the days to open each of the crates for this important exhibition, the objects and documents that I unwrap and inspect provide clues as to the great injustices suffered during the seizure and forced sale of Japanese Canadian property, the subsequent internment period, and the decades following the end of internment.

 The concept of “unpacking” is a popular term in academic and activist circles. It turns a physical action into a conceptual exercise. Unpacking generally involves naming and examining the layers of assumptions and “common sense” behind a thought, concept, word, belief etc. I am struck by the double meaning of the word as I physically unpack the objects from the exhibition crates and mentally unpack my own ignorance on the subject of the internment of Japanese Canadians. Some of the pieces speak loudly to me, both for the beauty and pain that are expressed in the struggle for justice.

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Mrs. Hoshino’s embroidered blanket from Mrs. Hoshino’s memory box. NNM TD963.2

There are several memory boxes in the exhibition. The boxes were crafted as part of a community-based art project in New Denver, British Columbia with “Japanese Canadian Elders who endured incarceration during World War II.”[1] Each box is full of small keepsakes related to the elder’s experience of internment.;”> The box by Mrs. Hoshino holds a piece of material upon which this statement has been embroidered: “I leave it. I forgot. I want to forget.” As the note with the box explains: “Because of her painful memories, Mrs. Hoshino did not want to be photographed…..[she] created a small felt blanket to represent her memory of receiving a blanket at Hastings Park.” I am reminded that remembering can be too painful for the person who experienced the trauma. I am also cognizant that the pain Mrs. Hoshino felt was due to the policies of the Canadian government at the time.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Canada’s Shame, mask by Haruko Okano. NNM L2013.2.4

Canada’s Shame, mask by Haruko Okano. NNM L2013.2.4

The mask by artist Haruko Okano is a piece that takes its name, Canada’s Shame, from the newspaper headline pasted across the mask’s chin. Okano’s mask echoes similar sentiments as Mrs. Hoshino’s small, embroidered blanket. The barbed wire across the face, along with the metal tears and the many newspaper articles plastered across the mask’s face attest to the pain, frustration and anger felt by Japanese Canadians during and after the second world war. These two powerful pieces visualize the experience of betrayal by the Canadian government and the importance of the eventual call for justice by Japanese Canadians.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Cover of the Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. NNM L2013.2.16

Cover of the Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. NNM L2013.2.16

The final piece of the exhibition that really caught my interest is a booklet entitled Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. Held in 1984 in Vancouver, BC, the forum contains essays by influential Japanese Canadians on the topic of Japanese Redress. It was an essay by David Suzuki, the now well-known environmentalist that grabbed me. The title of Suzuki’s essay alone, Redress as a Canadian Issue, speaks volumes. In the essay, Suzuki connects the traumatic experience of the forced evacuation of Japanese Canadians to internment sites in 1942 with his life long devotion to science as a trained geneticist. Suzuki explains how, at the time of writing in 84, he had spent “over 20 years of my life trying to demystify” the scientific notions of the first half of the 20th century that were used to justify the supposed inferiority of minorities.[2]

It was these scientifically backed justifications that supported the racist policies of seizure of Japanese Canadian property and internment that so deeply affected Suzuki’s family. Suzuki calls the evacuation “a black hole—this gaping thing that was totally mysterious and certainly not taught in school history.”[3] Suzuki goes on to explain the importance of righting this injustice for all, especially other minority groups, in Canada. As he states: “What happened to us has profound implications for many other ethnic groups, so the issue of redress matters greatly.”[4]

It is important for Canadians to remember the pain caused by the injustices of the political system. I won’t quote the old adage about history repeating itself, however, I will note that many injustices continue to be perpetuated against diverse minority groups and Indigenous peoples across Canada. Indigenous peoples have a long and ongoing history of forced displacement and internment in residential schools, and now within the Canadian jail system. Many here in the Grand Forks area will remember the seizure of hundreds Doukhobor children in the 1950s by the provincial government. These children were detained in the New Denver internment camp, the same camp that held the displaced Japanese Canadians only a decade earlier, in prison-like conditions for six years. It is with a heavy heart and open eyes that I unpack the A Call for Justice exhibition and think of Suzuki’s reminder that “you can never get enough of democracy—you always need more.”[5] We must continually work to uphold seemingly basic human rights so that these injustices do not continue. And still there is hope in this exhibition. In 1988 the Canadian government negotiated a redress settlement with the Japanese Canadians affected by the racist policies of the government enacted during the Second World War, after decades of tireless campaigning by affected Japanese Canadians and their supporters who fought for more democracy.

Jessie Short, gallery 2 guest curator

[1] SOCIAL PRACTICE > MEMORY BOXES (1994 – 1999) by Katherine Shozawa. http://katherineshozawa.com/community/memory-boxes-1994-1999/ accessed March 9, 2016

[2] Suzuki, David. Redress as a Canadian Issue in Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. Vancouver JCCA Redress Committee. Vancouver. 1984. P. 20-21.

[3] Suzuki, David. Redress as a Canadian Issue in Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. Vancouver JCCA Redress Committee. Vancouver. 1984. P. 21.

[4] Suzuki, David. Redress as a Canadian Issue in Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. Vancouver JCCA Redress Committee. Vancouver. 1984. P. 24.

[5] Suzuki, David. Redress as a Canadian Issue in Redress for Japanese Canadians A Community Forum. Vancouver JCCA Redress Committee. Vancouver. 1984. P. 19.

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