Reclaiming confiscated property highlights conversation about historic wrongs

A consensus is growing among Japanese Canadians about reclaiming a Vancouver property seized by the government decades ago.

The area around Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was, before the Second World War, Canada’s most vibrant hub of Japanese families, culture, cuisine, cafés, businesses, baseball and Buddhist temples. Newspapers of the day called the area “Little Tokyo” or used the racist label “Japtown.” Its inhabitants would have called it “Paueru-gai,” a translation of Powell Street.

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In 1942, with Canada and its allies at war with Japan, the Canadian government uprooted more than 20,000 British Columbians of Japanese descent — many Canadian-born, including children and seniors — seized their personal property, and interned thousands of them in camps. Within months, The Vancouver Sun described the “once-bustling Powell Street” as a “ghost town.”

Along with the headline “Whites already taking over evacuated homes in Japtown,” the Sun reported in July 1942 that those white newcomers “are the promise of new life for Little Tokyo, for plans are now being laid by city council to reclaim the whole area for white habitation.”

Now, 77 years later, there’s a different conversation happening around reclaiming in the area.

The internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians, done on the excuse of national security, has come to be recognized as a grave injustice for which all three levels of government have apologized. The federal government issued its formal apology in 1988, and signed a redress agreement allotting money for surviving internees and investments for a Japanese community fund.

In 2012, the B.C. government made its own apology, and while that was seen as an important step, community members say, it was only a step.

B.C.’s 2012 apology caught many Japanese Canadians by surprise, including Lorene Oikawa, president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, because the government did not consult with nor include the community in the process. Nor did the provincial apology include any efforts toward redress.

“So we wanted to work with the government to have some meaningful followup,” Oikawa said, “and that’s the commitment right now from the current B.C. government: They want to work with us, and they’re supporting our community consultations.”

In April 2018, the association presented a proposal to B.C. Premier John Horgan and cabinet ministers. In March of this year, the government confirmed its support for the B.C. Redress Project, providing the association $30,000 to conduct consultations.

The City of Vancouver also apologized, in 2013, for its part in wartime injustices against Japanese Canadians, and there have been attempts since then to talk to the city about reclaiming a property in the Downtown Eastside “as a way to make that apology more meaningful,” said Judy Hanazawa, president of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association.

That idea has been growing since the province’s and city’s apologies, said Hanazawa. “But it’s been given more weight, I guess, with the B.C. redress process. Because when we get feedback from people, it comes up, commemorating and reclaiming stolen property.”
Considering the history, Hanazawa said, Japanese Canadians are sensitive to talk about displacement, and want to avoid anything that could force people from their homes. It would be ideal, she said, if an empty or derelict property in the area can be identified for creating the legacy project.

“The Japanese Canadian community has a long-term vision of having a cultural asset that can serve the need for housing, and also be a commemoration and an acknowledgment of the Japanese Canadian history,” said Emiko Morita, executive director of the Powell Street Festival Society.

It could combine non-market housing with a communal space for “healing and wellness,” Morita said.

“There does seem to be growing consensus within the community for a cultural asset that encompasses social housing, resources, and a centre for intergenerational trauma, and part of that vision would be involvement from all levels of government.”

In 1942, the federal government initially described its seizure of Japanese-Canadian-owned property as “protecting the interest of the owner,” saying it would ultimately release property back to its owners, according to a University of Victoria associate professor, Jordan Stanger-Ross, in a 2016 article in the Journal of Planning History. But in 1943, officials decided to sell that property, without owners’ consent, including about 1,700 parcels of real estate. That policy shift toward wholesale dispossession and forced property sales largely stemmed, Stanger-Ross reported, from City of Vancouver officials, including planners and aldermen.

“For the frustrated municipal advocates of public housing in Vancouver and for real estate agents, the dispossession was an opportunity to realize long-standing goals of social reform and profit, respectively,” wrote Stanger-Ross, director of Landscapes of Injustice, a UVic-based research project focused on the dispossession of Japanese Canadians.

Through research of historical land titles and records, Stanger-Ross and Landscapes of Injustice have identified the locations of Downtown Eastside properties owned by Japanese Canadians before internment in 1942, including eight properties which are now owned by the City of Vancouver.

“Sometimes I think about a proportionality between the energy expended to cause a harm, and the energy that might be expended to address it. One of the things we found in our research is the City of Vancouver used city resources and city staff to encourage the dispossession of Japanese Canadians,” Stanger-Ross said.

Vancouver, Stanger-Ross said, “didn’t just pass a resolution, they didn’t just talk about it. They used the resources of the city to help make that happen. So, from my perspective as a citizen, I think it’s reasonable to think about historical harms and how they might be addressed by present-day political jurisdictions.”

Landscapes of Injustice has provided its findings with Japanese Canadian leaders, Stanger-Ross said. “That’s research that we’re able to provide, and I don’t see it as my place or role to comment on what should be the political process that would follow from that.”
In 1984, four years before the Canadian government’s redress agreement, Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd wrote that Vancouver and B.C. shouldn’t wait for Ottawa to make reparations with Japanese Canadians. The municipal and provincial governments, Boyd wrote, could fund the creation of a cultural centre in the Powell Street neighbourhood that “used to be a broad feature on the face of this city.”

“Can they not demonstrate a measure of regret for the mistakes of 1942?” Boyd asked 35 years ago. “We can, and should, preserve the culture of the neighbours we sinned against.”

B.C. Culture Minister Lisa Beare, in an email, said her government cannot ignore past injustices.

“We recognize the significant harm that came to Japanese Canadians as a result of provincial government actions during the Second World War,” Beare said.

Oikawa, the National Association of Japanese Canadians president, has talked Beare and the premier on this subject. Consultations are going on and the association will be making recommendations for redress to the province in the fall. Two ideas consistently brought up during consultations, Oikawa said, are centred around education and commemoration: Many Japanese Canadians believe lessons about internment should be included in B.C.’s core school curriculum, and that there should be signs to mark historically significant places around the province.

“There is a great concern that people don’t know what happened” in 1942, even among today’s Japanese Canadians, said Oikawa. “And there’s the bigger picture: It’s not just for the Japanese Canadian community, it’s for all of society. We need to know this history to learn from it and stop repeating the mistakes.”

“ ‘Never again’ has to be more than words in an apology,” she said.

“If you flash forward to 2019, what’s really alarming to us is we’re hearing the same kind of rhetoric that was being said in 1942. … Now, it’s Canadian Muslims. Somehow, now, they’re ‘foreign.’ They’re ‘terrorists.’ ‘What are they hiding with their head coverings?’”

Oikawa pointed out that in the U.S., the Trump Administration is using Fort Sill, an army base in Oklahoma used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans during the Second World War, to detain 1,400 migrant children.
Last month, the Japanese American Citizens League issued a statement condemning the “incarceration of children” at Fort Sill, saying: “77 years ago, very few stood up to the incarceration of Japanese American families, so today Japanese Americans as a community stand up for the children being placed in these modern concentration camps.”

This recent B.C. redress consultations have engaged people both inside and outside the Japanese Canadian community.

One meeting last month in Vancouver engaged members of what the invitation called “communities that have also faced discrimination and/or dispossession in B.C.” That meeting, Hanazawa said, featured representatives of Chinese, Jewish, First Nations and African Canadians.

“We think other communities need to know the history, and need to know what’s going on, and then we need to ask them to stand by us and support us,” Hanazawa said. “Once we get past the consultation phase, we’ll be talking to government, and once we do and we get any kind of an idea of what their response is, we’re going to need more widespread support for what we’re doing. And we do have community support, for sure, from other
communities.”

Hostility towards Japanese Canadians did not begin with the bombing of Pearl Harbour and Japan’s entry into Second World War. Racist legislation had targeted Japanese, Chinese and other ethnic groups in Vancouver and B.C. for decades before the war.

“Those laws were like the ground floor before the internment,” Hanazawa says. That’s how, she said, the government could “so easily” convince the rest of the public: “‘You’ve got to get rid of these enemy alien Japanese people, and make sure you kick them out of the province, never to return.’ Because that was the intent.”

A physical space, perhaps a historic building in the neighbourhood once called Paueru-gai, could help serve today’s dire housing need, commemorate and acknowledge wrongs of the past, and serve a legacy for the future.

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