Reflections on Idle No More rally from a Japanese Canadian

Walking with StrangersThe following is an article I wrote for the February edition of The Bulletin.  This is a Japanese Canadian magazine, published by the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association (JCCA) of Vancouver, that has been in circulation since 1958.  You can learn more about the JCCA and The Bulletin here:  “The Bulletin: A Journal of Japanese Canadian History + Culture“.

I wrote this short piece in order to illustrate how different histories and experiences of struggle speak to one another in important ways and how these commonalities can inspire action/participation.  Further, I find it frighteningly easy to fall into the trap of thinking at the expense of listening or reflecting.  In this light, I wanted to advocate for and practice a more broadly understood form of listening.

Personal Reflection: Walking with Strangers
(Originally published in February issue of The Bulletin)

Greetings from Ottawa!  Our city has been a-buzz lately with the news and action surrounding Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More Movement.  With all the information and conflicting stories swirling about in mainstream and social media channels, I decided to attend a rally myself to both show support and to experience this “history in the making” first-hand. I attended the January 11th rally, where some 3,000 people walked from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill.  As I walked alongside and among strangers I reflected on my own family’s history and realized just how much, and how little, I understood about what was going on.

A pivotal and key part of the Japanese Canadian redress movement was to educate Canadians on the complex injustices of dispossession, internment, and relocation; this was a part of Canadian history that had been refused entry into the dominant historical narrative of Canada for many decades.  Many Canadians flatly denied these injustices.  Many Canadians had no idea whatsoever of the issues.  However, many Canadians also supported the movement, showed up at rallies, and wrote letters – they observed, listened, and learned.  As I walked with strangers – as I observed, listened, and learned – I couldn’t help but feel connected.  Even though the details of Japanese Canadian experiences in Canada are very different from that of First Peoples, what we have shared is a struggle to make our pasts, and thus our Canadian present at any given moment, known.

In 1975, CBC radio’s Judy Lamarche interviewed David Suzuki wherein he stated: “I feel as a Canadian who happens to have been put in a concentration camp because I was Japanese I have a special responsibility and that is not to forget how fragile democracies and guarantees are.”  I reflected on that “fragile democracy” while walking.  I reflected on how the War Measures Act made a gross abrogation of human rights a “legal” process in 1942.  I reflected on how I have been able to live my entire life without knowing what a treaty means in the Canadian context; the only reason why I know today is because I actively cared to learn.  I reflected on what First Peoples are saying – shouting! – about how Bill C-45 will negatively impact their communities and all Canadians.  I reflected on the parallels I saw between the redress movement and this rally.

Through Japanese Canadian voices like David Suzuki’s, Joy Kogawa’s, Ken Adachi’s, the National Association of Japanese Canadians’, and individual community members’, Canadians had the opportunity to observe, listen, and learn about Japanese Canadian experience – not only the suffering and injustice, but the beauty of our Japanese cultural heritage… and people listened.  No longer were Japanese Canadians known only as spoken about or on behalf of by “experts” or “analysts” such as politicians, journalists, or academics.  Today, all Canadians have an unprecedented opportunity to listen to the voices of First Peoples telling us about their interactions with the government, the beauty and importance of their cultures, this long struggle, and their lives.  What I personally took from that day and this moment, was/is a renewed commitment to listen to people – not only with my ears and my mind, but with my heart, with my history, with my whole self.  I have so much to learn – and to unlearn.  I choose to listen to the voices of the First Peoples’ speaking now.  I know that these communities know what is best for them.  I know that I certainly do not.

Reflections on the TRC Urban Inuit Statement Gathering Session in Ottawa

The poster for this event can be viewed here:  TRC Urban Inuit Statement Gathering Event

Yesterday, August 16th, 2012, I attended a Truth and Reconciliation of Commission of Canada (TRC) statement-gathering event for Urban Inuit survivors of the Indian Residential Schools System and their families.  Held in downtown Ottawa at the Sheraton Hotel, this gathering was open to the public and encouraged the sharing of experiences surrounding the residential schools.  I sat and listened to statements in the afternoon session.  The majority of the statements I heard were from former students who attended these schools as recently as during the 1960s.

As listened to the painful stories that were nevertheless expressed with strength, hope, and at times humour, I noted how many of the stories were told as two distinct moments: My life before I went to residential schools and my life since I went to residential schools.  These stories express the violent and multiple losses of childhood innocence and experience that many, if not most, in the “western” world have the fortune of enjoying until they feel ready to “be an adult”.  Put otherwise, survivors shared experiences that went from innocence, security, unity, freedom, and love to confusion, danger, separation, confinement, and fear…  And everything in between.

Interesting, I thought to myself, that the federal discourse on residential schools incorporates a dual-moment narrative, but in reverse.  As Prime Minister Harper expressed in his apology, Canada has gone from “a policy of assimilation that was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country” to forging “a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us” (Statement of Apology).

I worry that this assertion of Canada’s progress, its new-found respect for and understanding of Indigenous peoples, overpowers the stories of IRS survivors.  The history of the Indian Residential Schools System risks becoming more about Canada finding its way to better and more just policies and relations, than about how it betrayed and failed First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and even less-so about the struggles they face today.