A Gift Most Precious : Excerpts from an interview with Ann Gomer Sunahara
In 1924, Canada’s Dominion Archivist, Arthur G. Doughty, wrote, “Of all national assets, archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.” In this spirit, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto with the assistance of the University of Toronto Media Commons has devoted resources to create its Japanese Canadian Collection. This collection will preserve to a professional archival standard materials from our community.
Among its contributors is Ann Gomer Sunahara, author of The Politics of Racism (Lorimer, 1981), who has graciously deposited her interviews for the book with Fisher, as well as donating a substantial archive. Her papers include all the sources she used when writing the book. As part of her gift, Ms. Sunahara agreed to a wide-ranging “Q & A” with Chris Kurata on May 18, and to share excerpts with The Bulletin.
Sunahara’s book was one of a number of texts that was pivotal in the successful campaign for redress. While Kogawa’s novel Obasan (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981) was directed towards the hearts of Canadians, Politics addressed not only the minds of Canadians but that core value on which we pride ourselves – justice and a sense of fair play. Mindful of her obligation to ensure that the past is not repeated, Sunahara has posted her book, updated with a short redress chapter, online as freeware for future generations to access at www.japanesecanadianhistory.ca.
CK: Tell me a little about your birth family and how you came to the point where you met David in Malaysia.
AGS: My ancestry is English and Anglo-Irish. I am the second child of six (five girls and a boy) born to an RCAF veteran and his English-Irish war-bride. They met when Mom was a radar operator with the RAF and Dad was a radar technician seconded to the RAF. It was a “mixed marriage”; that is, Mom was Catholic and Dad was Anglican. In those days, that was considered radical and unusual but their example and my father’s instinctive fairness, taught me that religious differences were not as important or immutable as the nuns wanted me to think. His attitude was that women should do whatever they were capable of doing. That example made me query the sexism I met outside my home and laid the foundation for my thoughts on racism.
CK: What led a young graduate from Mississauga, from what would have been then the whitest of places, to volunteer for CUSO in Malaysia?
AGS: Oh yes, Mississauga was solidly white when I grew up there in the 1950s and early 1960s. There was one black family, one First Nations family – who stereotypically lived in a shack by the railway tracks until the parish helped them buy a townhouse in a lower-middle-class development – and one Japanese Canadian family – the Odas, whose father worked for Sheridan Nurseries. There was also a jeweler and watchmaker who had a business in the village: Mr. Nagano. The only JC that I actually had contact with was Bev Oda who was the Company Leader of my Girl Guide troop for a year or so.
I volunteered for CUSO because I wanted to see something of the world before I started to work at a regular job. My older sister, Mary, had volunteered with CUSO in Zambia. I wanted to go to Thailand but did not have a sufficiently good aptitude for languages to qualify. In Malaysia, we taught school in English. If you went overseas with CUSO, you could also postpone repaying your student loans. Good incentive. I taught Second Form Science and English. I left after a year for two reasons: I was the victim of an assault and I discovered that there were local teachers who were unemployed because of the presence of the volunteers. It was a great learning experience for me. It taught me what necessity really was. I hope that I did not do any damage to my students.
CK: Before meeting your husband, David, what did you know of Japanese Canadians? How did you learn about the internment?
AGS: In 1965, in Grade 13, I learned vaguely that Canada had done something wrong to JCs from a good history teacher, Mr. Fullerton, at my high school who mentioned it when talking about the US black experience. The Kennedy assassination in 1963 and the freedom rides of the summer of 1964 were my political awakening. It was probably in that context that I first heard of Japanese Canadians.
But I did not understand the significance of what had happened, and that it happened to people I loved, until the FLQ crisis in October 1970. I had returned from CUSO service in Malaysia in September 1970 and, at David’s invitation, had moved to London, Ontario, where I quickly found work as a laboratory technician at the Chemistry department at UWO – now Western University. I was also welcomed into his family, and really liked his mother.
Just before I got there in 1969, Malaysia had some inter-ethnic “difficulties” (race-riots) so I had witnessed a real emergency and seen more varieties of armed men than, as a Canadian, I ever knew existed. So when Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to combat the FLQ, I, like 80% of Canadians, presumed that there must be valid grounds for the actions of the government. (One aspect of serving overseas is that you carry an idealized view of your home society with you, so I was still in the throes of believing that Canada would never do anything without a good and legal reason).
David, on the other hand, went very silent and grim. When I asked him what the problem was, he replied “I am waiting for them to start rounding people up and putting them into camps like the government did to us.” And that was when it hit me: the little piece of history that I had learned in high school was something real and something that had deeply hurt David’s family. Thereafter, I recognized that the family stories that referenced “Slocan Days” were stories of lives hijacked by unjust government rules and actions.
Nor was I surprised when David’s fears were confirmed after 400 or so young Québequois and Québequoise were rounded up and imprisoned but never charged with any crime or after Parliament passed legislation retroactively making their membership in separatist organizations illegal – legislation that – thank whichever deity you prefer – was never used.
Gradually, I began to wonder why David and his family were “evacuated”, as they called it. I could not accept the explanation of the day: that the government was protecting JCs from the BC public. First, I understood from my experience with religious prejudice and sexism that bigots don’t change their spots easily or quickly. Nor do they differentiate among various types of the “other.” So how could JCs be so hated in 1941 that they needed protection from people in BC but not in other places in Canada? And it couldn’t be just the war, because Germans and Italians were not being treated the same way. So, like a good academic, I started reading and researching.
CK: How did the idea of the book take root? What was the writing process? What resources were you able to access?
AGS: I had already decided to leave chemistry (where the labs were so badly ventilated that the chemicals were making my hair fall out – this was before the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System improved worker safety in labs). So I started taking history courses at UWO part-time while David was getting his M.A. The plan was to get enough history credits to apply for graduate studies. In 1975 David started a PhD program in Sociology at the University of Alberta and I began a MA in History at the University of Calgary.
The UC history faculty was very supportive and helped me with a research grant while studying and a travel grant to do research at the National Archives in Ottawa. Self-funded visits to David’s sister in Vancouver let me research at UBC and the Vancouver City Archives. In Ottawa, the government documents had just become open under the 30-year access rules that were then in place.
David and I also worked the “Learned Societies” events. If you were a graduate student and presented a paper, your airfare and a per diem could be got from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Presenting and publishing papers also established your bona fides as an academic which, in turn, made you qualified to see archival material not available to the general public – including personal material that cannot be accessed today under the Freedom and Information Act because of privacy concerns. This was also where I met and worked with Gordon Hirabayashi and other JC sociologists. Gordon was on the faculty of the Department where David was studying.
Keep in mind, though, that research was much different in the pre-digital age. There were no searchable databases – just mountains of papers and boxes and boxes of microfilm and microfiche – and often the “ethnic” material was missing. I found the JCCA papers in file cabinets stored above the stage right in the auditorium at the Cultural Centre in Toronto.
I was also helped by a compliant thesis supervisor, Howard Palmer, and by Roger Daniels, an expert on the Japanese American experience, who fortuitously had a sabbatical at UC while I was doing my studies there. It is always useful to have someone to argue things with.
My MA thesis only whet my appetite to dig deeper. When writing it, I had time to only skim the documents in Ottawa and the Japanese Canadian side of the story was missing. I was also keenly aware of the passage of time as we began to lose our Issei and older Nissei and I was not prepared to wait four years to produce a second thesis that added the Japanese Canadian side of the story.
Instead, I applied for and got a Canada Council Explorations Grant to spend six months travelling across Canada interviewing Japanese Canadians and dipping into archives wherever I could find the material. A second six months was supposed to be spent writing it up. In the end the research took all of 1976 and the writing and rewriting – and additional research – took another two or more years while I worked at a variety of jobs in historical research and government. Publishing took the better part of eighteen months.
CK: What sources were out there? How did your interaction with the J.C. community influence or inform your material?
AGS: I found many of the individuals I interviewed using the “snowball” method. For example, David and I attended a youth conference for Japanese Canadians in Calgary where we met JC leaders from across the country. With recommendations from them, the academics I was meeting at Learned Societies events, and people like Tom Shoyama, Kay Shimizu, Gordon Hirobayashi, Toronto’s George and Kinzie Tanaka, and my husband’s relatives scattered across Canada, I got introductions to the local communities across Canada and to long-time members of the JCCA, who in turn would send me on to others, including Hakujin who had helped them in the 1940s. I was fortunate in that David’s family did not belong to any faction within the JC community. They were nobodies in the prewar and wartime JC community so when the inevitable “now who is your husband and who are his relatives” questions came, no one froze me out. The postwar generation are better known. In fact, having Fred and Walter Sunahara as cousins helped in Toronto.
CK: What was your initial concept? How did this change over time? I wonder whether your training as a lawyer influenced your style.
AGS: I wrote the book before I went to law school. It was the impetus for my legal education. Writing the book made me angry enough to put up with law school and the legal culture that law schools perpetuate. Politics was published at the beginning of my second year in law and, frankly, was what got me an articling position with the Court of Appeal of Alberta and with a top-notch Edmonton law firm (despite being female and in my late 30s – my first experience with ageism.)
The writing style in the book reflects two things: First, when I went back to study history in the 1970s, I was a terrible writer. So David, took me back to Grade Five English and retaught me the basics of good writing. Then he took the drafts of my papers apart exposing all their logical problems. By the time I had put a half-dozen of them back together logically and succinctly, I understood how to write clearly. Our relationship survived the experience.
Second, my writing style also reflects my science training. Presenting evidence and doing a disciplined experiment are not that different.
CK: How did the book land at James Lorimer? How did you wind up retaining the rights?
AGS: Lorimer was likely Mike Murakami’s suggestion. I had submitted it to Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton and was rejected by an editor there on the grounds the “Canadians were not intellectual enough” for the book. I had the pleasure of repeating that response to Mr. Hurtig when, at the awards ceremony where it won the Best Non-Fiction Book in Alberta in 1982, he demanded to know why I had not published through his firm. He winced.
Mike also designed the cover of the book, taking a photograph made by an NFB photographer and rendering it in half tone. I was quite happy with it.
The title was another matter. I wanted to call it Why Gichan: The History of the Uprooting of Japanese Canadians. I was told that “Gichan” was too “ethnic” – this was six months before Joy published Obasan. Lorimer had a series of books related to the “Politics of” and he saw this as part of that portfolio.
I ended up with the rights after Lorimer went bankrupt in the late 1980s. I bought up the remaining 25 books and the publishing contract from the trustee. He only had the right to publish in English in Canada because my lawyer had taken care to minimize my loss of IP rights – which let me put a slightly expanded version (with a redress chapter) on line in 2001 as freeware at japanesecanadianhistory.ca.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Chris Kurata is an independent scholar living in Toronto. Individuals who are interested in donating photographs, papers or documents may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org for up-to-date contact information for the Collection. Chris is also interested in information about pre-war Japanese Canadians in Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes.