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To read the newsletter, click this link Landscapes of Injustice Winter Spring 2019 Newsletter

Message from the Project Director, Dr. Jordan Stanger-Ross

It was my great pleasure this month to submit to McGill University Press a weighty book manuscript: the summative research findings to date of Landscapes of Injustice. It contains contributions from 11 different authors, ranging from two people who were undergraduate students when they wrote their first drafts to distinguished scholars and the one-and-only Art Miki. Further, it represents the contributions of dozens of people who contributed to our discussions over the past years. I’m very proud of the book. The Epilogue gave me the opportunity to reflect a little on our collective accomplishment. I reproduce it in part here (notes eliminated):

During the years when Landscapes of Injustice was conceived and written, the questions at the heart of this history seemed to grow more urgent. With tens of millions of people displaced and the politics of security, migration, and race perpetually entwined, members of our research collective connected the work we were doing to the challenges of the present. How will states and citizens protect human and civil rights at times of national insecurity? What response will democratic institutions make to tribalism? Who is harmed by a politics of fear, and who benefits?

Such questions seem likely to bedevil the coming century, just as they did the past. History will not save us, but it is, perhaps, a tool, among many, in answering some of our most pressing questions. We should value our contested, critical histories, in which hard questions are asked and past injustices interrogated. The alternatives are not good.

The great feminist historian Gerda Lerner, jailed in 1938 for her resistance to the Nazi take-over of Austria before escaping from Europe, later reflected:

To those in power, history has always mattered. In fact, recorded history began as a means of celebrating the accomplishments of military chieftains, usurpers, and kings . . . Similarly, usurper regimes of the 20th century used history for their own purposes . . . German National Socialism created an elaborate official history extolling the mostly mythical deeds of Teutonic ancestors and rewriting more recent history to fit their version of “Aryan” racial superiority . . . The United States, in its rise as world power . . . used the doctrines of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny . . . as a legitimizing explanatory system.

Absent critical histories, power too easily coopts the past, in Canada as elsewhere. Japanese Canadians of the 1940s, Lerner’s contemporaries and, like her, victims of a politics of race, knew better than most the impacts of being pushed outside the story of a nation.

They said so at the time. In 1948, Thomas Shoyama, then President of the National Japanese Canadian Citizen’s Association, attempted to convey the dispossession of Japanese Canadians within the lives that they lived. “When, early in 1942 and under the grim compulsion of global war, the federal government finally decreed the complete removal of the Japanese Canadian minority from the British Columbia coast,” he wrote:

it brought to a drastic and disruptive end a half-century’s advance towards economic security and success. The story of the struggle of that half century, beginning with the early arrival of eager, though bewildered young men, is an intensely human one, beneath all its political, social and economic ramifications . . .  a story of extravagant hopes and prospects quickly deflated by the press of unexpected reality; a gradual acceptance of and adjustment to actual conditions; a transformation from hopes of easy and quick success into the determination to build for the future . . . it is against a background such as this that . . . [internment] may be properly assessed.

This book has attempted to follow Shoyama’s lead, and that of many Japanese Canadian storytellers since, in conveying the “intensely human” story of their confrontation with “unexpected reality.”

 At the same time, we have worked to investigate the processes of injustice. We have sought to understand who was responsible, why they did what they did, and how so many were complicit. We have examined the possibility of alternatives; of paths not taken and voices of the  unheeded. Hannah Arendt, reflecting on the mid-twentieth century, suggested that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not.” “No more,” she proposed, “is required, and no more can be reasonably asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.” Our project has sought to understand the undertaking of political violence, the compliant majority, and those who thought and acted otherwise.

We have done this work in partnership. A large grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada enabled, and required, that we work in connection with one another. Some 70 people, from 17 varied institutions, met regularly to discuss, debate, and struggle over this history. We benefited from two advisory committees, one comprised of senior scholars and the other made-up of leaders within the Japanese-Canadian community. Our collective is diverse: ranging from people who lived through the dispossession to those who came to it for the first time in answer to an advertisement for a summer job. We have benefited also from the presence, at all of our meetings, of varied academic perspectives as well as the contributions of museum curators, in-service teachers, and archivists already working to translate this history for new audiences and to ensure its long-term preservation. Many who are not represented as authors in this volume nonetheless made essential contributions to its creation; this is truly the result of a research collective.

Connecting across differences of experience, discipline, and perspective, we developed an approach to historical analysis that was for me, at least, novel, challenging, and exciting. I came to imagine our collective as a wheel: our work meets at a hub in the centre, in discussion of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians, but each of our contributions—life histories, analyses of land titles and law, the lessons necessary to teach fifth graders to think in new ways about fairness and loss—radiate out from that core in their own direction, each with its own theories, methods, and objectives. Student researchers on our project have carried this history into projects of their own, reshaping the topic to fit their urgent questions and pressing concerns. The work of partnership is to hold these varied initiatives together in the same room, to work together but not in unison, to integrate without flattening.

Years ago, when Landscapes of Injustice remained in its infancy, I was walking with my wife toward the central square of an ancient city when people, mostly young men, began to stream toward us. They had on black armbands and combat boots. They saluted passing traffic, drivers serenading them with honks. My wife Ilana, who is from Brooklyn, favoured confronting them, asking what they wanted, what they believed. I, having always lived in small Jewish minorities, urged instead that we divert to another street. Afterward I struggled with what we had seen and how we had each responded. I had a feeling of helplessness, but also reassurance that at least I, and many others, were working hard to understand the histories from which such present hatreds emerge. Our history may not save us, but working hard to draw it to light, together and across difference, is an essential task of our times. 

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