INHERITED INJUSTICE - Michelle LeBaron
In 2012, an unusual convocation ceremony was held at the University of British Columbia where I am a member of faculty. One by one, elders moved slowly across the stage to be handed diplomas denied decades before, festooned with armfuls of flowers and heartily congratulated by dignitaries amidst flash photography. I sat in the front row, eyes full of tears as 90 year old Roy Oshiro and other Japanese Canadians who were forced to abandon their studies at my university in 1942 accepted their degrees with dignity and quiet joy. This was meaningful to me not only because I work for peace and justice, but because my family were unwilling players in the terrible theatre that was forced internment of people with Japanese descent living on Canada’s west coast.
The day before the convocation, Mr Oshiro said this to the press:
"This is one thing that will happen once in 1,000 years," warning he might throw his arms up and shout “Hallelujah" when he took his turn across the stage. "Never mind watching for me," Mr. Oshiro said. "It's the people who started all this – they're the ones who should get all the credit. We're just the recipients of their goodness." He was referring to fellow Nisei Mary Kitigawa who began the campaign to award degrees to those who had been forced by internment to stop their schooling.
If my grandmothers Antonette or Luella had been at that ceremony, they would have recalled well the story of how Japanese internees arrived on their Canadian prairie farms in the 1940s. I’ve reproduced the account as I remember Antonette telling it when I was young enough to sit under the quilt she was blocking and listen.
We didn’t have nothing at first. No land and no money. Wilford worked a section of the Johnson’s land, backed down onto the coulee, while he waited for his homestead. That gave us near enough turnips for the winter. I guess I don’t care if I ever see another turnip.
The only folks who had less than us was the Japanese; they came during the war. Lived in our shack out back, the one we used for the sugar beet pickers or the planters when they came to get the crops in or help take them out. Used it sometimes for harvest time, if rain was coming or some of the boys were away. It wasn’t much, just a few boards strung together to keep them out of the worst of the cold and the weather. Then the government told us they were sending some Japanese to live there for a piece. A whole family of them.
We went out back, tried to pretty it up some. Got some old curtains out of the boys’ room and put them over the windows. I figured they’d need it more than the boys. Tried to clean the old sink out there, badly stained with rust. Swept the floor, except the dirt wouldn’t come out of those old cracks. You know, the place was never meant to be more than a shack. It made me uncomfortable, knowing folks was going to live there all that winter.
When Mrs. Yamaguchi came with her little boy and a tinier girl, we went out and took them some biscuits and a fresh jug of milk. It was a warm day, and she didn’t make a sound as she walked around the two-bedroom shack
in her black shoes with clacketty heels on them. She had a clean white apron on over her dark dress. After walking around the whole place, she sat silently on a chair, pulled that apron up over her face and cried. At least I think she cried. She barely made a sound.
Her husband come later. How they were all going to sleep in them two old beds, I didn’t know. I told Vivian to go back in and get the second quilt off my bed. At least they wouldn’t freeze on my account.
It was the war, you know. No one had much. Flour, sugar, stockings rationed. We were lucky to be on a farm. We shared eggs with them, offered some of the cow when we butchered her. Helped them a bit with some vegetables in the summer. Couldn’t do nothing about the rice, though. They had to go down and beg the Chinaman at Airway Market for rice. They kept to themselves. Never complained. They lived there for near three years, and I don’t know to this day how they done it. I never knew they had a house on the coast until much later. After the war, they still didn’t go back. They built that corner store on the highway, at least it was on the highway until they built the new bypass. I guess they got lots of customers in those early days.
Whatever their lives had been before and during the early days of the war, Japanese internees were left without the properties, vehicles, livelihoods, and careers they had before October 1942. Since my post-war childhood, I’ve tried to imagine those times. I resolved to go back to that tiny prairie town at some point and talk with Mrs. Yamaguchi. I wanted to know how she had survived in the midst of not only deprivation but striking injustice. I wanted to know how she found it, living in that prairie community where she must have
been regarded as alien and “other” though she had been born in Canada.
I never found Mrs. Yamaguchi. Someone said she had moved out east. But I found a Japanese woman who had lived in the prairies through that time still living in the town where my father grew up. She had passed the war on someone else’s farm. Sitting at her rough pine table, I listened to her stories of those days. Her lack of bitterness struck me. It was something more than looking at a glass half-full, something about being patient with the process of belonging. Though the town was a Mormon town and Mormonism was a ticket to fitting in, she did not convert until her husband had died. Only then, she joined the Mormon church and said it gave her a measure of peace.
When I flash forward to the time in which I now live, so publicly fractious and filled with horrors flashing across screens, I remember Anonette and the Japanese families forced to leave the Pacific Coast during WWII. While both the Japanese internees and their European-origin hosts may have been less likely to question authority than I am today, I find it unsettling to remember that only two members of the University of British Columbia faculty protested the actions taken against Japanese Canadians in 1942. I want to continue to be unsettled, to advocate with all my strength for reconciliation with Japanese Canadians, indigenous people, and others whose voices have been marginalized and whose lives have been damaged by racist policies.
I’ve learned a lot from watching, reading, and listening to Japanese Canadians in their campaign for redress, finally granted by the
Canadian government in 1988. Here is some of what I learned: bitterness is corrosive, even when injustice has been done. Church suppers – everyone at a dinner table with kindreds – are powerful ways of breaking boundaries. Belonging is a process, and it may be long, permeable, and uneven. Law doesn’t always help; it has too often been a tool of the powerful excluding the so-called “other.” Reconciliation is not an event or an outcome, but a call to action as the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission reminded us when they issued their final report on the legacies of abuse in Indian Residential Schools last year. Finally, gratitude seems to be a life- changer, even in the midst of darkness or unfairness. Or perhaps it is a life-changer especially in the midst of darkness or unfairness. If those perpetrating injustice never come to their senses and long- delayed degrees are never conferred, gratitude claims back a measure of dignity as an affirmative choice about how to see things, about how to remain intact even while fighting for justice. I remember this every morning and every evening; it is an anchor for me in remembering the past injustices from which I still benefit, and a touchstone when I feel those words coming on that we have all said: It’s just not fair.