Asian Canadian Studies Network
With the sound of taiko and First Nations drums, and the chatter of over 7,000 voices, the University of Victoria was the hub for academics, artists, researchers, policy-makers, practitioners and labour and community activists during the first week of June. More than 1,800 presentations and sessions took place at Congress 2013, the annual gathering for the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, including a special event, the founding of the Asian Canadian Studies Network (ACSN).
The inaugural meetings of the Network brought together representatives from universities, labour and communities to advance Asian Canadian Studies as a distinct field of study with opportunities for research, sharing ideas and findings, cultural production, and building on partnerships for social justice.
University of Victoria’s John Price is the driving force for the Network. Price says in his book, Orienting Canada, Race, Empire, and the Transpacific, “Anyone who teaches about Asia in North America is aware of the problem of Eurocentrism – how a persistent emphasis on European history or Canada’s European links marginalizes Asia, not to mention Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.”
Price notes “The study of Europe is not in itself Eurocentric. It is when such studies fail to qualify their geographical limitations, project an unwarranted universalism, or marginalize or underestimate contrary experiences that studies related to Europe become Eurocentric.”
Marginalization was one of the focal points for Congress 2013. The theme for this year’s Congress was “@ the edge,” reflecting not only geography – Victoria as part of the Pacific Rim and western edge of Canada – but also promoting diversity and inclusivity and a challenge for solutions to address those who are marginalized and perhaps on the edge of society.
The Asian Canadian Studies Network conference provided the opportunity to have some voices “@ the edge” to be heard. Speakers and panelists from the Japanese Canadian community included Joy Kogawa (author of Obasan), Mary Kitagawa (Asian Canadian community leader), Kirsten McAllister (Simon Fraser University), Karen Kobayashi (University of Victoria) and Lorene Oikawa (BCGEU vice president).
ACSN conference also provided a unique integration of academia, labour and community.
The first day of the conference opened with a panel on “Community Coalition Building.” Dawn Smith (Nuu-chah-nulth/Coast Salish) LE,NONET Community Internship Coordinator shared her personal story and also about her involvement in Idle No More.
Lorene Oikawa (yonsei, 4th generation Japanese Canadian) BC Government and Service Employees’ Union vice president told the story of the Anniversaries of Change, a consortium of labour, academia, First Nations, and Asian Canadian community groups coming together to commemorate key anniversary dates in the history of Asian Canadians including the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver.
In 2007, a conference, historic walk, and reconciliation dinner was attended by over 700 people to recognize the 100th anniversary of the riots as well as to commit to fight against discrimination and racism. In 2008, another conference, historic walk, and dinner was organized to recognize the 94th anniversary of the Komagata Maru which was forced to leave Vancouver harbour with 376 South Asian passengers (all British subjects) and the 100th anniversary of the Continuous Journey Act which required immigrants to travel by “continuous journey” from their country of birth and have in their possession at least $200 cash before being admitted to Canada.
The collaboration between academia, labour, and community resulted in not only successful events, but also other connections which lead to the development of school curriculum incorporating Asian Canadian stories, and a unified show of support speaking out against racist comments. Oikawa noted, “In all our collaborations, labour and academia must acknowledge the power differential and not overwhelm community experience.”
Oikawa said, “We must have Asian Canadian voices telling our stories. Allies can support us. We also need to challenge government on policies that are barriers to diversity and inclusion. Misuse of government workers and resources for quick wins are not acceptable. There needs to be meaningful engagement and true inclusion.”
Oikawa also shared her experience forming the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance in BC. The alliance provides a forum for Asian Canadian union members and one of the goals is to help educate Asian Canadian workers and their communities about the labour movement’s work for fairness, safety, and human rights for all people.
Oikawa said, “So often we’re told we [academia, labour, and community] have nothing in common and we work in silos. Think of how much more we can accomplish when we pool our resources, use our strengths, and support each other in our work for social justice.”
“As a member of the JCCA human rights committee, a member of the labour movement, and a UBC alumna I see the commonality of our goals.”
Another member of the JCCA human rights committee, Japanese Canadian community leader Mary Kitagawa, was the opening guest speaker on the second day of the conference.
In John Price’s introduction he describes Mary as a “remarkable woman, a woman who for nearly 60 years has challenged the forces in Canada and elsewhere that would try and impose their racist agenda. What’s more, she has inspired many others, including allies like myself, to join her in these campaigns for justice. And what is truly remarkable, she has won.”
Kitagawa said, “In May of 2008, I watched on the internet a most unusual graduation ceremony at the University of Washington. The graduates, in cap and gown, were very elderly; some quite frail looking but looking very happy. I learned that they were once young students who were expelled in 1942 when US President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6099, after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor sending 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps.” And so began Kitagawa’s quest to obtain honorary degrees for Japanese Canadian students who were forced to leave UBC in 1942.
She wrote to UBC the next day and was “surprised and disappointed by the discouraging letter that came from the Chair of the Senate Tributes Committee soon after. She informed me that UBC, unlike the universities south of the boarder did not expel her students of Japanese descent. Therefore, UBC will not be granting honorary degrees to this small subset of people affected by political and social decisions of that time. She also stated that staff and faculty of Japanese heritage left UBC for many reasons. When I read those words I knew that she did not know our history.”
Kitagawa then described her campaign to educate and lobby UBC and to garner support from the community by including articles in the JCCA Bulletin, Nikkei Voice, and then an article in the Vancouver Sun which led to requests for interviews from newspapers and radio stations across Canada and very encouraging stories in the UBC student run newspaper The Ubyssey.
Success came on October 5, 2011. Kitagawa said, “I finally received an update from President Toope’s office on the process by which UBC was determining how best to honour Japanese Canadian students whose education was disrupted in 1942. I was informed that a Task Force struck by the UBC Senate Tributes Committee in 2010 was in the final stages of working out details of a three-prong plan that would include: providing personal recognition for the 76 students, initiative to educate future UBC students about this dark episode and for the UBC library to preserve and bring to life the historical records.”
“Once the decision was made, UBC went beyond expectations to produce a most memorable event on May 30, 2012.”
Kitagawa said UBC’s 2012 announcement of the Asian Canadian Studies minor program was most welcome. She said it is important to have the “history of Canadians of Asian descent…to know the names, see the faces, hear the voices and feel the emotions expressed…”
“I hope that the Asian Canadian Studies program will be presented in such a way that future generations will better understand the struggles and the historical injustices the Asian Canadians endured hoping to be accepted as Canadians. Many non-Asian historians distorted the truth in order to justify how the early Asians were treated: blame the victims. Now we have an opportunity to record the truth; in print, in lectures and on film.”
The two day conference culminated in a community banquet, “At the Edge: Communities United for Justice” which featured speakers Joy Kogawa and Victoria City Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe.