Photo courtesy of s4p7atk.edu.glogster.com
This is an important month. While I appreciate that Asian Heritage Month is about celebration, I think it's essential that we acknowledge the unfortunate history that accompanies it as it continues to affect the fabric of our society and our narratives today.
I often find myself conflicted over "(insert ethnic group) Months" as I always question the purpose of them. Is it entirely about celebrating the people, cultures and traditions, or is it partially an attempt to distract from the racist histories that continue to be part of our present?
As this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the internment of Japanese Canadians, it's only befitting that this Asian Heritage Month we remember this dark moment in our shared history. Seventy years ago, Japanese Canadians were physically removed from their homes, relocated to prison camps with extremely poor living conditions, and their belongings auctioned. When the WWII was over they were prevented from returning to British Columbia .
The "Japanese Canadian Interment" was something I had studied in university. I read scholarly articles that described the acts that called for the physical removal of "residents of Japanese racial origin" who were well-established, law-abiding, and in many cases Canadian-born. I am fortunate to have studied their displacement, hardships and the violence they endured. I remember discussing it in class and writing papers on this history, acknowledging the racialized basis of this discrimination and how this history has affected Japanese Canadian communities today. I knew of the justified anger the community faced and I, too, felt angry.
Photo courtesy of canadianjapaneseinternmentcamps.wordpress.com
The motion that authorized the removal of Canadians of Japanese-descent was driven by fears of a threat to "national security":
"... the concentration of approximately 25,000 residents of Japanese racial origin on Canada's Pacific Coast constituted a potential reservoir of a volunteer aid to our enemy, Japan... Citizen's of Canada's Pacific Coast look upon this enemy alien population as a potential menace..."
The racialization in this motion of Japanese Canadians as the enemy is disturbing to say the least. We often hear about the internment as the initial act of racism towards Japanese Canadians. However, this racist outlook towards the community wasn't something that erupted overnight—it had existed long before the internment.
Far in advance of 1942, Japanese Canadians faced many immigration policies and work regulations that were fueled by racist ideologies. In the 1920s and 30s, the Canadian government enforced limitations to issuing fishing and logging licences to Japanese Canadians, meant to exclude and socially isolate Japanese and Japanese Canadians, and of course, affected their living conditions. This was a deliberate act to systemically marginalize Japanese Canadians through laws and policies - the epitome of systemic racism.
Photo courtesy of yesnet.yk.ca
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government seized the opportunity to justify even more racist and intentionally disruptive policy under the guise of a "national threat", calling for the forced removal, confinement and eventual exile of Japanese Canadians.
While conducting research for this article, I came across copies of old posters alerting Japanese Canadians of the areas they were prohibited from. There was a list of cities that they weren't allowed to be in and if they were spotted, they would be ticketed, fined and removed. For some reason, my heart slowly started to sink to my stomach. As my eyes scanned the list of cities, I was hoping and praying I wouldn't see mine. I clearly had a personal and emotional attachment to the city where I spent most of my life growing up.
"New Westminster, Port Moody, Ioco ...", and there it was. My hometown.
A rush of emotions started to brew at the pit of my stomach. Out of denial, I thought that it couldn't be. I carefully checked again. But it was still there. I felt like the font was larger in size--that it physically jumped out at me from the page. I felt shame, disgust, sadness and a different kind of anger. To think that my own hometown accepted this racist motion and participated in the removal of Japanese Canadians was disturbing.
It was a moment where I felt logic has once again failed me. I knew of this history and I knew how horrible it was, but it wasn't till it trickled to something I was personally attached to that I felt like I was betrayed. I think at times it's easy for us to remove ourselves from important issues like this as we get wrapped up in the philosophical and sociological debate of it all. When in reality, sometimes it's just about reflecting about how these histories personally and emotionally affect you - and you might be surprised to find how they do.
It's important that we re-visit this history because it's what shapes our present. Despite the fact Canada has already apologized, and that the Japanese Canadians have successfully appealed for redress, we may still have a long way to go in eliminating racism. Just re-read the motion that was passed seventy year ago. The terms: "enemies", "alien population" and "national security" are eerily similar to the political and social rhetoric of today.