Tess Elsworthy is the most recent recipient of the National Association of Japanese Canadians and Landscapes of Injustice’s Hide Hyodo-Shimizu Scholarship, coming on board for the Landscapes of Injustice RA Intensive and Spring Institute in late April 2017. She began work in June in the Provincial Records research cluster. Landscapes spoke with Tess about her experience thus far.
Landscapes of Injustice: Congratulations on being the 2017 Hide Hyodo-Shimizu Research Scholarship recipient. We are excited to have you on board.
Tess: Thank you. I can’t overstate what an honour it is to have been awarded the Hide Hyodo-Shimizu Research Scholarship. I am grateful to have been welcomed so generously by everyone at the National Association of Japanese Canadians and Landscapes of Injustice, especially the Community Council. As someone arriving in the last year of research, I was really struck at the Student Intensive and Spring Institute by the ways in which the more seasoned RAs have contributed to the project’s methodology and evolved along with it. They have made me feel at home and shown me the scope of work this research makes possible.
LoI: Can you tell us a little bit about your studies and interests that have brought you to this point?
Tess: I am currently a Master’s student in History at McGill University, and my thesis project investigates the McGill Senate’s decision to officially exclude Japanese-Canadian undergraduate students from October of 1943 until the end of the Second World War. McGill has commissioned several histories that cover the institution’s mobilization during the war and yet this episode has never been acknowledged.
My personal interest in Japanese-Canadian history fits within a broader focus on the history of colonialism and racism in Canada. As a Canadian of English and Scottish background, I recognize that racially exclusive policies were enacted to benefit my own ancestors and that I am implicated in their contemporary legal and social legacies. I am indebted to the work of Sherene Razack, Mona Oikawa, Himani Bannerji, and so many other scholars who have shaped my approach to Canadian history.
I must also give credit to my instructors at McGill, especially Laura Madokoro, my M.A. supervisor, who is also involved with Landscapes of Injustice. I took a class with her at the end of my undergraduate degree and it proved to be the final push toward my thesis project. While working on a study of the redress movement, I made my first foray into McGill’s archives to study the exclusion policy. I would not be where I am now without Laura’s guidance and encouragement.
LoI: How did you hear about this award and what interested you in this project?
Tess: Laura recommended I apply for it. We had discussed her work with Landscapes and I followed some of the media coverage and Jordan Stanger-Ross’s publications, so I knew immediately that this was a project I wanted to be part of.
LoI: As a student of history, to what extent does the Japanese-Canadian history influence your scholarly aspirations? Do you see yourself focusing inward on this particular topic or do you extrapolate it outward to other ethnic communities and minorities?
Tess: Japanese-Canadians’ experiences define my conception of Canada as a political project, especially as discourses of fear and difference continue to be used to justify discrimination against members of ethnic and religious minority groups in the name of national security. As I deepen my knowledge of Nikkei histories I can see myself focusing inward on understudied topics. This was especially evident to me at the Spring Institute as I talked with other RAs and community council members about their research interests and new avenues of study.
Extrapolation seems inevitable; there are so many ways to connect Japanese-Canadian histories to those of other minorities who have subverted and resisted similar processes of exclusion, dispossession, and exploitation. Pamela Sugiman, Kirsten Emiko McAllister, and Mona Oikawa have all given me models to think across experiences of racialized minorities that are not identical but have striking similarities.
LoI: How is the research for Landscapes going so far? What have you been working on?
Tess: I am working in the Provincial Records cluster under Kathryn Bridge, at the Royal BC Museum, with Gord Lyall, Camille Haisell, and Sydney Fuhrman. We are seeking to find the role that the provincial government played in the dispossession of Japanese-Canadian property. We are also searching for primary documents that tell the broader story of Nikkei experience in British Columbia during the 1940s. We have searched through collections from the Premier, Provincial Secretary, Attorney General, Department of Fisheries, and so on. Some collections have turned up little relevant material, but we have also had some success.
The Attorney General’s papers were quite difficult to go through, but we located and are in the process of describing and digitizing multiple significant cases involving Japanese-Canadian dispossession and incarceration. There are some heart-rending stories that we think deserve attention and some illuminating cases related to property. I came across a case of a boat sold by the Fishing Vessels Disposal Committee to B.C. Packers and eventually stolen by one white fisherman from two others. It offers an interesting chronicle of what happened to one vessel after its original owner was forced to sell it. We are in the process of identifying this vessel using records Gord collected last year.
Can you draw upon previous work and research experience to assist you?
Tess: This job is much more intuitive than some previous research positions I have had in that I arrived with a sense of what and who to look for as we seek needles in these archival haystacks. I am further refining my skills with tips from Kathryn and Gord and resources like the communal spreadsheet.
My previous experience as a medical archivist has proven useful as we have begun the process of examining patient files from Essondale and other mental hospitals with the goal of making links to the trauma of dispossession and incarceration.
Can you see this experience helping your career in the future? Where do you go from here?
Tess: Though I had some experience with databases before, I am learning a lot about navigating LOI’s digital repository as a researcher. This is also my first experience with the Freedom of Information Act and restricted materials, so I’ve gotten to know a lot more about that process. The benefit of encountering so many RAs, community council members, and project partners is that each one has offered me generous insights that are essential for my investigation of Japanese-Canadian students impacted by McGill’s exclusive policy and those who landed in Montreal. I also have a few ideas for the Scholarship and Activism Forum and can see myself staying connected to the project in that vein.
The Hide Hyodo-Shimizu Research Scholarship has given me the chance to collaborate with Nikkei community members and scholars, and to reflect upon my position in relationship to my areas of research. I am lucky to have this experience so early on in my career, because it will set the tone for future research and analysis. This will be a summer I look back on as a period of major personal and professional growth. Ultimately I hope that what I learn here will enable me to produce historical analysis that remains relevant to Nikkei communities, and to join the many scholars who have helped re-center Canadian history around the voices of people marginalized in traditional accounts of the past. Thank you again for giving me this opportunity.