Laura Ishiguro, Nicole Yakashiro, and Will Archibald

Report prepared for Landscapes of Injustice

September 2017

I. Executive summary

This report’s central contention is that we cannot fully understand, explain, and represent the history of Japanese Canadian people in the first half of the twentieth century – including their experiences with state-administered violence and injustice during the Second World War – without taking seriously the inextricable relationship between this history and the history of settler colonialism in Canada. More specifically, with the primary concerns of the Landscapes of Injustice project in mind, we argue here that the forced removal of Japanese Canadian people from the coast, their internment, and the forced sale of their property during the war were intrinsically part of the Canadian settler colonial project.

To develop this discussion, the report first offers an overview of our main concepts and arguments, and explains why these matter in scholarly and public narratives about Japanese Canadian history. Then, drawing on Landscapes of Injustice research, the report explores these arguments using a range of primary sources that reveal and explain the settler colonial implications of Japanese Canadian history in this period. Each of these issues deserves more attention than we can give it here, but we hope that our examples demonstrate the relevance and importance of our arguments.  Overall, we seek to outline how and why the public-facing work of Landscapes of Injustice might engage with the close relationship between its primary subject and the wider history and ongoing present of settler colonialism in Canada.

II. Overview

What is settler colonialism?

A definition

By settler colonialism, we mean a specific formation of power that works toward several key aims:

  • The dispossession of Indigenous peoples and their removal from the majority of the land.
  • The (anticipated or attempted) elimination of Indigenous peoples, whether through physical violence, cultural assimilation, the termination of distinct legal status, or other means.
  • The resettlement of the land with non-Indigenous people who intend, individually or collectively, to stay forever, and the assertion of a settler sovereignty that enables them to claim a right to ownership and belonging
  • The establishment of a new political, legal, economic, social, and cultural order that privileges some non-Indigenous people (in Canada, especially white settlers) and excludes and/or exploits the labour of others (in Canada, especially people of colour) in order to sustain the larger system.

Through these elements – dispossession, elimination, resettlement, and structural inequality – settler colonial projects (and their proponents) aim to restructure places entirely, into the indefinite future. In this way, settler colonialism should be understood as an historical and contemporary phenomenon, with both deep roots and ongoing practices.

By this definition, Canada is a quintessential settler colonial country. Its very existence is predicated on the removal and ongoing erasure of Indigenous people from their land, the long-term resettlement of non-Indigenous people on that land, the assertion of Canadian sovereignty and control, and the sustenance of a settler political, legal, economic, social, and cultural order. In the territories now known as British Columbia, for instance, the foundations of a settler colonial society were laid in the mid-nineteenth century, with radical changes that included (among many others) the mass immigration of non-Indigenous people who intended to settle for the long term, the establishment of a reserve system that sought to confine Indigenous people to a miniscule percentage of the land, and the passage and enforcement of land and immigration laws that generally favoured white settlers. As many early-twentieth-century settler politicians and commentators put it, the ultimate goal or assumed future for Canada was as a “white man’s country.” Even as its specific forms have changed over time, this form of white settler colonialism continues to undergird the country today – a building block and an organizing principle that structures Canada’s systems of governance, law, and property; shapes its social relationships; and informs its very place on the land.

Recommended reading: Our definition and historical understanding of settler colonialism owes much to a number of scholars and activists. One useful introductory source is Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker, Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada (Fernwood, 2015).

What does this have to do with Japanese Canadian history?

Our arguments

Because settler colonialism has been so fundamental in structuring Canada, we understand it to be a critical influence on the experiences, relationships, and very possibilities of life for everyone who has resided (or tried to reside) in this place. But beyond this general point, this report develops a more specific set of arguments about the particular impact of settler colonialism on Japanese Canadian people to the mid-twentieth century. As we assert, attention to settler colonial logics and structures helps to explain the existence and contours of the Japanese Canadian community; the tools available to the Canadian state in dealing with this community; and the arguments made by Japanese Canadian people in resisting or negotiating the state’s actions. Overall, we contend that it is impossible to understand fully the forced sale of Japanese Canadian property in the war without understanding its wider context in Canadian history, and in particular the ways that the principles, ideas, and tools of Canadian settler colonialism underpinned and enabled it.

Why does this matter?

Contributions to scholarly and public discussion

It addresses a major gap in the prevailing historical narratives about the Japanese Canadian community and about settler colonialism in Canada. Scholarly and public representations of Japanese Canadian history tend to consider the development and trajectory of this community in comparative isolation from the history of others. At the same time, settler colonial studies and Canadian colonial historiography tend to focus on binaries between white settlers and Indigenous people, or between the settler state and Indigenous people, with only recent and minimal attention to non-Indigenous people of colour. As such, the existing literature on Japanese Canadian history has paid very limited attention to settler colonialism, while the scholarship on settler colonialism has been virtually silent on the Japanese Canadian community. The few exceptions to this pattern have not yet significantly impacted the prevailing historical narratives.[1] In this sense, we believe that a critical and deep analysis of settler colonialism in Japanese Canadian history would be radically new, addressing what we consider to be a major gap between fields that precludes a full understanding of either area, and with the potential to tell an important and different story of Canada itself.

It resists the dominant “model minority” framing and offers a better way to understand state injustice. Virtually all public historical representations of the Japanese Canadian community conform to the so-called “model minority” myth. These interpretations emphasize the community’s hard work, loyalty, stoic fortitude, and efforts to build cultural bridges and carry on in the face of racism. We respect and recognize that this narrative has played an important role in defending the Japanese Canadian community from discrimination, including as a valuable tool in the campaign for redress, but we also believe that it is too restrictive, simplistic, predictable, and problematic as an historical interpretation. Among its many problems, these narratives insist on representing Japanese Canadian people as perfect or respectable victims of undeserved state injustice. In so doing, they do not only underplay the long history of Japanese Canadian resistance; they also risk implying that other people – for example, those who resist state oppression more openly, who do not or cannot seek to be part of a respectable settler citizenry, or who fail to conform to expectations of so-called civil behaviour in other ways – deserve state or social marginalization, dispossession, oppression, or violence. From our perspective, the definition of injustice should never be understood as (or implied to be) dependent on the apparent goodness or potential redemption of the people being targeted, and historians must be careful not to reinforce existing and troubling binaries of deserving and undeserving victims. To be clear, we do not advocate here for an historical interpretation that would suggest that Japanese Canadian people deserved what happened, or that would obscure the level or impact of state violence on the community. Rather, we seek a better and more critical framing of state injustice itself, which offers more nuanced narratives of Japanese Canadian experiences with racism and discrimination. In other words, we seek histories that do not require us or others to be perfect, or to fold ourselves into settler colonial values in order to deserve justice and dignity. We believe that, by advancing a new, more expansive, more complicated, and more critical interpretation of state power, an analysis of settler colonialism and Japanese Canadian history offers one way forward in this respect.

It is timely, responsible, essential, and just work for the present moment. Among the many discussions of history, commemoration, and justice today, we are particularly attentive to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, which underscore that the work of understanding and addressing Canadian settler colonialism is the responsibility of all Canadians and Canadian institutions, including universities and museums. In this light, we share a conviction that the public work of this project is a critical, necessary, and under-acknowledged opportunity to engage meaningfully with settler colonialism and its relationship to Japanese Canadian communities. Our hope is that such work could encourage Japanese Canadian people (as well as other Canadians) to engage more proactively with the history of settler colonialism in this country, to understand their complex position within this past and present, and to wield the power of their experiences for more just ends today.

A note on sources

The following discussion focuses on primary sources drawn from Landscapes of Injustice research. We have included references to these sources in each section, as well as copies or excerpts of them in the appendix. Throughout the report, we have also included references to a small number of secondary sources that are directly relevant and significant to our analysis. However, the report does not contain a full list of related and recommended readings. We can provide this upon request.

[1] Two exceptions are Andrea Geiger, “Reframing Race and Place: Locating Japanese Immigrants in Relation to Indigenous Peoples in the North American West, 1880-1940,” Southern California Quarterly 96, 3 (2014): 253-270; and Mona Oikawa, “Re-Mapping Histories Site by Site: Connecting the Internment of Japanese Canadians to the Colonization of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada,” Aboriginal Connections to Race, Environment and Traditions, eds. Rick Riewe and Jill Oakes (Winnipeg: Aboriginal Issues, University of Manitoba, 2006), 17–26.

To read the entire report, click here. Ishiguro, Yakashiro, and Archibald – Settler Colonialism and Japanese Canadian history-2