Memories of Dispossession Panel: Successful Public Event at Vancouver Public Library

The continuation of an on-going panel series, Landscapes of Injustice hosted Memories of Dispossession and Internment at the Vancouver Public Library on January 14, 2017. Moderated by Michael Abe and Vivian Rygnestad, the panel included Jean Kamimura, Sam Yamamoto, and Keiko Mary Kitagawa. The event also featured contributions by Tosh Kitagawa, Nicholas Blomley, and Research Assistants who shared posters with the audience following the panel. Public participation exceeded expectations, with 120 attentive guests filling the Special Collections Room.

Panel moderators Michael Abe and Vivian Rygnestad began the event. Michael gave an introduction to Landscapes of Injustice, explaining the project’s focus and situating the event within wider commitments to public engagement. Community Council Chair Vivian Rygnestad described the purpose of the Community Council, but also the importance of deconstructing euphemisms – e.g. ‘internment’ and ‘the Japanese’ – and addressing the injustices that they hide. Vivian then introduced the panel, all long-time community volunteers and leaders.

The panelists began by recounting their pre-war memories, including the journeys and occupations of their parents and grandparents. Mary talked about pre-1942 Japanese-Canadian history, to provide the context of racial tension and discrimination which preceded the orders of incarceration. They shared the moment they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbour. As Mary stated, “Right away, we felt the tension of something terrible to happen.” Sam was fishing for dogfish when he was called to port with the declaration of war, and moored his boat in Vancouver, which he never saw again. Jean recalled her mother practicing her signature late into the night, preparing for the identification requirements that would ensue. She, her mother, and siblings boarded a boat to Vancouver, while her father remained to sell family belongings with limited success.

Mike raised the impacts of Order-in-Council PC 1942 1665, which ordered that all property belonging to people of the Japanese race situated in the protected area of British Columbia be seized vested in, and controlled by the custodian of enemy property on the panelists’ families. Jean recounted the widespread looting that occurred, with family heirlooms such as the piano being stolen with enthusiasm. Mary recounted when the custodian visited her mother, with documents claiming that the property would be held ‘in trust’. A personal friend, the custodian compelled her to sign offering his personal assurance that the property would be protected. Betrayed, a month later they received word that they would have to vacate the property.

The panel continued chronologically, detailing the following years. Sam and Mary recalled memories of Hastings Park. Mary described the smell of barns as she approached, and the deplorable conditions once they entered. The meagre provisions were inedible, and Mary remembered how her one-year-old brother cried in hunger. Jean and her family were assigned to the Tashme Internment camp, an isolated and strictly regulated place. She recounted the frostbite, physical and mental trauma. The audience in listened sad silence as Mary detailed the RCMP taking her father, man-handling him into a truck. She conveyed her anguish in not knowing for months if her father was alive. Discrimination and violence did not end in 1945. Mary described the hostility and threats of violence that she and her family experienced upon their return to Salt Spring Island, including from the RCMP and the local Anglican congregation. Following the stories of the panelists, Tosh Kitagawa described how the injustices of internment continued through the post-war period.

However, the stories of the panelists also highlighted the strength of their parents and families, and the resistance of individuals and communities. Mary described the impassioned letters of protest by her sister, and the bravery of her parents in returning to Salt Spring. In all the testimonies offered by the panel, the families and communities of Japanese-Canadians persisted in the face of oppression. Concluding the panel, Mike emphasized this resilience, citing the shoganai/shikata ga nai demonstrated by his own grandmother. Vivian concluded with a similar testament to these previous generations, sharing how her own childhood – though beginning in an internment camp – was filled with happiness and love. She stated that the values held by her parents – education and the betterment of one’s community – are the principles that animate the Landscapes of Injustice project.

After the conclusion of the panel, Mike introduced the audience to the involvement of students in the Landscapes of Injustice project, and the vital role played by Research Assistants. Lane McGarrity (UVic, Community Records), Anna Gooding (UBC, Land Title Cluster), Rebeca Salas (SFU, Oral History and Land Title Clusters), Nicole Yakashiro (U of T, Government Records Cluster), Kaitlin Findlay (UVic, Land Title and Knowledge Mobilization Clusters), Dr. Eiji Okawa (UBC, Legal History and Government Records, and Community Records Clusters). Dr. Nicholas Blomley also presented, describing an upcoming academic article on the letters of protest of Japanese-Canadians to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property. The collection analyzed includes 292 letters of protest, which are articulations of resistance and the diverse connections that individuals feel to property.

The Landscapes of Injustice project thanks the panelists and the Vancouver Public Library for their generous partnership in this event. A filmed recording of the event will be available shortly on the website.