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Canadian Nikkei Series

Province of BC Designates 56 Historical JC Sites: Interview with Lorene Oikawa and Sherri Kajiwara - Part 1

“I asked one young Japanese Canadian university student why he got involved and he said there were two small paragraphs he read in school, and it only caught his attention because it’s part of his heritage. He was shocked because he never knew what happened to Japanese Canadians so he started to search out information. He said that most students would skim over it and not learn our history.”

—Lorene Oikawa, president of the Greater Vancouver
Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association (GVJCCA)

May is Asian Heritage Month across Canada, an appropriate time to remember our own Japanese Canadian heritage.

As a teacher who teaches mostly second generation Asian students, Nisei, my hopes for the future are embodied in them. Just as our forefathers sought to do, my Brampton students are learning to become the better Canadians that all teachers hope for to push the evolution of Canada towards becoming a nation where unconditional dignity and respect are universal. We are not there yet.

So, whenever I hear about young Canadians in 2017 being subjected to the same kind of racism that my parents endured in 1942, I am reminded of the great responsibility that JC educators have to teach our students about the JC experience whenever we can.

Recently, a Muslim student of mine reported that his family was rudely turned away at Pearson International Airport in Toronto when they went to apply for a Nexus card. (They got a more polite reception the second time.) He often hears “terrorist” directed at his family (mother wears a hijab) at a local mall too. It does not serve anyone, especially our own community, to ignore the fact that the scourge of racism is still very much alive.

Thankfully, good things are happening now too.

On July 7th, 2016, Heritage British Columbia announced on behalf of the BC Ministry of International Trade and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations that nominations of historic places for the Japanese Canadian Historic Places Recognition Project. Recently, 56 sites were given special designation. (see map for locations).

The following is an interview with Lorene Oikawa, president of the GVJCCA and Sherri Kajiwara, director/curator of the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, BC.

* * * * * 

Can you first of all tell us when this process was started and by whom? Was the GVJCCA and NNM a part of this from the outset?

Lorene Oikawa

Lorene Oikawa: This process was started by the provincial government of BC. Unfortunately, they did not involve the GVJCCA.

The GVJCCA and members of the Japanese Canadian community were surprised by the announcement, and concerned about the short turnaround time to submit an application. A letter signed by individuals and representatives from Japanese Canadian community groups including the GVJCCA, Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, and the National Association of Japanese Canadians was sent to Heritage BC requesting an extension. On September 8, 2016, Heritage BC announced an extended deadline to November 30, 2016.

Sherri Kajiwara

Sherri Kajiwara: How the NNM initially became involved was when a member of the NNMCC Board who works for the Ministry of International Trade, connected me as Director|Curator of the NNM with Angela Hollinger, Executive Director of the Canada Japan Society and Advisory Council to the BC Government who was part of an initial advisory council for the Japanese Canadian Historical Places project. I was asked by staff from the Ministry of International Trade and Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism to join the foundational Advisory group which included Angela Holinger, Tosh Suzuki, and Jim Sawada.

What was the government’s ‘official’ reason for taking on this initiative at this time? Was the 75th anniversary of the internment given as a reason?

Lorene: Official reason is to follow up on a project they did with Chinese Canadians. See below*. After the call for Japanese Canadians, they put out a call for South Asian historic places, and also Francophone places.

Our community group did a lot of work to support the process and provide them with information such as a list of significant dates around the 75th anniversary which was compiled by the Nikkei National Museum. Also, we provided a lot of advice. I told them to use Japanese Canadians not ‘Japanese’, because people don’t know or forget this history is about Canadians. Unfortunately, when organizations or governments embark upon projects without first consulting with the community, important points are missed and have to be corrected. (*The Provincial Recognition Program follows a highly successful 2015 pilot project, which focused on historic places of heritage significance to Chinese-Canadians, resulting in the addition of 21 provincially recognized places in British Columbia to the B.C. Register of Historic Places.)

The scope of the project is quite wide. What was the criteria used to choose some sites over others? Will those that weren’t chosen be able to apply again?

Lorene: We weren’t told why some sites were chosen over others. I don’t know if sites that weren’t chosen are able to apply again.

I did express my concerns that there may be members of our community who didn’t hear about the announcement. The announcement was made in Vancouver, and because of the racist act of uprooting, dispossession, incarceration, and forced relocation, our community is spread out and not everyone is based in Vancouver or British Columbia. That’s why we worked with the community, and set up the Facebook page and started our own communications to get the word out. I sought out the head of Heritage BC at an event, and asked Paul Gravett about missing locations and he told me there would be other opportunities, but he wouldn’t give any details. This project is a good start, but there are other places and stories, and our part of BC history needs to be shared widely, especially in our education system.

Moving forward then, how can any future process best be conducted?

Lorene: Our community group is still together and lobbying to get an upgraded interactive map and signage for this project. For the bigger picture, the NAJC and GVJCCA has previously urged the government to work with the Japanese Canadian community. The provincial government failed to work with the community when they issued their apology in 2012.

We want to ensure BC/Canadian history is inclusive, and the history of Japanese Canadians needs to be more visible, and taught in our education system. Our community has been proactive with a number of projects, but the government needs to step up. That work will continue.

University of Victoria professor John Price has uncovered evidence that the provincial government had a bigger role, than has been admitted, in the racism in 1942. The NAJC will be following up with the provincial government.

Do any of these specific sites stand out for you? Can you please name and describe a few and their importance?

Sherri: Personally one of the most significant nominations for me was the 100 mile zone marker. 

It’s not a specific site but it was the defining border that delineated where Japanese Canadians were not allowed to remain after Sept. 30, 1942. If the Order in Council defining that border had never been passed, the forced dispersal beyond that point could not have happened. If forced dispersal hadn’t been allowed, forced dispossession, the wholesale disposal of property and chattel could never have happened.

Lorene: The incarceration/internment camps are a significant part of our Canadian history, not just Japanese Canadian history. I wanted these sites to be recognized, and it’s especially significant this year, because of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and the 75th anniversary of the incarceration. I was concerned that not all camps would be nominated so I submitted applications to nominate all of the camps. I also nominated “Oikawa Island” and “Sato Island”, now known as Don Island and Lion Island. My father’s side of the family, along with other families, settled on these islands after arriving in Canada in 1906. The history was documented in an Oikawa journal which was made into a book, Phantom Immigrants.

The nominations for Cumberland and Royston are also personal standouts, because my mother’s side of the family settled in that area on the north part of Vancouver Island in the 1800s. The area is well known for mining and the union activist, Ginger Goodwin, who was murdered there. Cumberland holds an annual miners memorial event which includes a visit to the Japanese Canadian cemetery to pay respect to the miners and their families. These Japanese Canadian communities are not as well-known as Powell Street area and Steveston so it’s good they are getting recognition.

What kind of issues arose through the process? Was there any opposition from any quarters?

Lorene: Our community group was concerned that not everyone would hear about the call for Japanese Canadian historic sites and that some people would be challenged to complete the nomination process. We set up a Facebook page, JC Sites BC, which provided a forum for discussion and sharing information about the nominations process. People had a lot of questions and it was a great online collaboration. A document was set up so people could self-report nominations being made, because the information was not being made available and we were trying to identify gaps. We hoped that seeing where there are gaps would encourage people to submit nominations, and help each other so that important historical sites are not being missed. When the community spoke up about a problematic question on the application form, it was taken off. The question was about identifying the owner of the site being nominated. The application was quite lengthy and involved quite a lot of work to get the information you were required to provide. This was hard enough, but then throw in a question about ownership, and some people were saying it was too hard to complete an application.

Any opposition from outside of the JC community?

Lorene: None that we’re aware of. However, I should point out that racism and ignorance haven’t been eliminated, especially online.

When I have done interviews there will be ugly comments posted about “Japanese” not recognizing that we are Canadians and have been here since the 1800s. Not everyone, but it is concerning that in 2017 the vicious attacks continue. Also, since the election of Donald Trump, it seems that many have been emboldened to act on their racist views. It’s not new, Muslims have been under attack since 9-11, but it’s getting worse.

The NAJC (and locally GVJCCA) has been speaking out against the attacks against Canadian Muslims, the bomb threats against Jewish synagogues, and racist flyers which have been distributed in areas across Canada (locally in Richmond and the Fraser Valley).

How were your organizations involved?

Sherri: In addition to myself on the Advisory group, our museum’s Collection Manager, Lisa Uyeda who also heads up the Heritage Committee of the NAJC, was on the Evaluation Committee. Our Research Archivist Linda Kawamoto Reid not only nominated several places but assisted many more with their nomination applications.

In addition to the Advisory group which I mentioned in an earlier question, there was an Evaluation Committee who worked very hard to respectfully and considerately select the sites that made the final cut in the project. In total we numbered 20 from a variety of organizations, some retired, with a good cross section of age and gender representation. In alphabetical order, the names are: Michael Abe, Masako Fukawa, Angela Hollinger, David Iwaasa, Sherri Kajiwara, Frank Kamiya, Paul Kariya, Dan Nomura, Shirley Nakata, Lori North, Linda Ohama, Jim Sawada, Naomi Sawada, Henry Shimizu, Howard Shimokura, Tosh Suzuki, Grace Eiko Thomson, Lisa Uyeda, Henry Wakabayashi, Ken Yada.

Lorene: As I noted in my response to the first question, Japanese Canadian community organizations and individuals joined together in response to the government’s call for nominations for historically significant Japanese Canadian places. We sent a letter to object to the abbreviated timeline for nominations. We launched a Facebook page, JC Sites BC. At the time, my comment to media: I said:

“We want to ensure as many people as possible hear about the call and are able to submit nominations. That’s why we spoke out about the original deadline date and the requirement to determine ownership of the property. It has been removed & the date changed.” The signatories on the first group letter (in alphabetical order): Momoko Ito, General Manager, Vancouver Japanese Language School & Japanese Hall; Jean Kamimura; Ron Nishimura, GVJCCA Human Rights Committee; Lorene Oikawa, President, Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association; Maryka Omatsu, Powell Street Festival Society, Japanese Canadian Community Building Project; Linda Kawamoto Reid, Research Archivist, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre; Laura Saimoto, VJLS-JH; Susanne Tabata, GVJCCA, National Association of Japanese Canadians; Grace Eiko Thomson, JCCB; and Lisa Uyeda, Collections Manager, NNMC, NAJC. Other individuals and groups also wrote in.

It seems that there was a great deal of collaboration, Who were the main parties? How active were survivors of internment themselves?

Lorene: Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association, Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, and the National Association of Japanese Canadians. As I noted previously, survivors joined us (some were able to attend meetings, for example Jean Kamimura and Grace Eiko Thomson) in expressing their concerns about the timeline and process, and then also helped getting the word out. Tosh and Mary Kitagawa were very supportive, and also wrote an individual letter. There were others who emailed or wrote on our Facebook page.

Read Part 2 >>


© 2017 Norm Ibuki

BC british columbia Canada community GVJCCA historical sites Japanese Canadian muslims NNM racism World War II

About this series

The inspiration for this new Canadian Nikkei interview series is the observance that the gulf between the pre-WW2 Japanese Canadian community and the Shin Ijusha one (post-WW2) has grown tremendously. 

Being “Nikkei” no longer means that one is only of Japanese descent anymore. It is far more likely that Nikkei today are of mixed cultural heritage with names like O’Mara or Hope, can’t speak Japanese and have varying degrees of knowledge about Japan.

It is therefore the aim of this series to pose ideas, challenge some and to engage with other like-minded Discover Nikkei followers in a meaningful discussion that will help us to better understand ourselves.

Canadian Nikkei will introduce you to many Nikkei who I have had the good fortune to come into contact with over the past 20 years here and in Japan. 

Having a common identity is what united the Issei, the first Japanese to arrive in Canada, more than 100 years ago. Even in 2014, it is the remnants of that noble community that is what still binds our community today.

Ultimately, it is the goal of this series to begin a larger online conversation that will help to inform the larger global community about who we are in 2014 and where we might be heading to in the future.