Landscapes of Injustice: A New Perspective on the Internment & Dispossession of Japanese Canadians – a review
by Judge Maryka Omatsu
LANDSCAPES OF INJUSTICE: A New Perspective on the Internment & Dispossession of Japanese Canadians
Edited by Jordan Stanger-Ross
McGill-Queens Press, 2020
The Japanese Canadian (JC) community owes a large debt to Jordan Stanger-Ross and the Landscapes of Injustice (LOI) collective for uncovering new facts about the role that the legal system, politicians and widespread anti JC racism played in our history. I approached the book with some trepidation, 500 pages, a tome. At times, it was painful to read about the deliberate destruction of lives and the callous disregard most British Columbians had to our plight. The 14 essays deal primarily with the dispossession and are divided into four sections: i) the “killing of home”, the forced sale of JC property that ripped the heart out of our community; ii) the decision to dispossess was not a hasty action made “as an act of panic under the crisis of war” (p. 461) but required eight years of “sustained government work” by bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians; iii) the report of the lies and justifications Government told to cover up their actions; and iv) the permanence of the dispossession and its continuing effects on our community.
The Collection contains information that many in our community might be familiar with, however, there were some facts that I found shocking:
1) the plan to rid BC and Canada of JCs was behind the selling of all our property. The thinking was, if they have nothing to return to, we can rid BC and Canada of “Japs”. Contrast this with the treatment of Canadian enemy alien Germans (847 interned) and Italians (632 interned) who retained their personal and real property and with Japanese Americans who were released from the camps before the end of the war and kept their property.
2) Everyday British Columbians participated in the looting and vandalism of JC property. Almost every property owned by JCs was broken into, looted and vandalised. Neither the Custodian nor the police stopped the “crazy mobs…who stripped the place clean” (p. 387). The “ashes from the Steveston Buddhist Temple were scattered over the floor, seats and shrine” (p. 228). 250 public auctions were held and thousands of British Columbians attended these popular events, purchasing over 90,000 personal items of their former neighbours. In support of the uprooting, letters “poured” into M.P. Ian Mackenzie’s Vancouver office from a wide range of voters, e.g. members of the public, the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, the Vancouver Real Estate Exchange (p. 470).
3) Researcher, Kaitlin Findlay criticized the Bird Commission that “continually resisted silenced, submerged the testimony of the 1,400 JCs who participated in their articulations of loss and value” (p.314). Yet Jordan Stanger-Ross “found largely to his surprise” that “he corroborated” the Bird Commission conclusions” that topped up the Custodian’s sale prices (p. 340). Stanger-Ross’s research determined that JCs “most significant losses came not by comparison with the wider market value at the time of the forced sales but rather by comparison with people who purchased their lands and benefitted over time” (p. 341). The loss was that of the opportunity of holding onto property and passing it onto family.
4) Profiteers: i) H.R. MacMillan, chair of the Wartime Requirements Board “bought the lands and timber of former competitor, Eikichi Kagetsu, one of the wealthiest JCs at the time for $93,000. Subsequently, MacMillan became a principal of one of the world’s largest forestry companies (p. 472). ii) Gavin C. Mouat, agent for the Custodian on Salt Spring Island, bought the 600-acre property of Torazo Iwasaki for $5,250. Subsequently, in 17 years of subdivision and sale, the Mouats netted more than $1.2 million (2018) by selling 73 of the 600 acres that they had purchased. iii) Donald and Edna McLeod and Mervyn and Edith Gardner purchased from the Custodian, Tsunetaro Murakami’s 27 acre farm on Salt Spring Island. Murakami received $986 for 25 acres from the Custodian. Over time, the purchasers “reaped massive profits” as the “total value of the 1944 farm was almost a full $3 million” (p. 350).
Politicians: It is difficult to decide who was the worst villain, infamous racist Vancouver MP Ian McKenzie or Port Alberni MP Alan Webster Neil (elected from 1921-1945). Neil advocated that all Asians be expelled from Canada, that no Asiatic be allowed to immigrate to Canada, that fishing licences only be “issued to White British subjects”, that the number of “Japs” who could work in sawmills, canneries and plants be limited and post war, that all JCs be deported. Sadly, despite a campaign in 2017, to remove Neil’s name from a Port Alberni school and street, Council voted it down by a vote of 5 to 2.
Lawyers and Bureaucrats: i) Civil servant, racist lawyer and Vancouver head of the Custodian of Enemy Property, Glen McPherson drafted OIC 469 that legalized the sale of real property (90% of JC property were leased by 1943 p. 175), then legalistically declared all JC property as “perishable” so that the Custodian could sell everything without their owners’ consent. McPherson was also an intelligence agent for the British Security Coordination who was “convinced that BC was full of (JC) fifth columnists”. ii) Nameless bureaucrats in the Custodian’s office who heartlessly denied to Teiji Ebisuzaki’s (one of the owners of the Ebisuzaki general store at 337 Powell Street) request to release some cash from the sale of his home and business to buy, because of a severe cold snap in Lemon Creek, warm winter clothes for his children who were wearing “ old rags..that were beyond patching” (p. 104).
Judges: i) Justice Sidney Smith approved each and every forced sale in Vancouver & Justice David Whiteside handled the sales of the rural properties and farm sales. ii) Justice Joseph Thorson, was Minister of National War Service before being appointed president of the Exchequer Court of Canada. The Nakashima case was brought in 1943 and sought an injunction stopping the Custodian’s sales. Thorson delayed releasing his negative decision until Aug. 28, 1947, years after most of the properties had been sold. iii) Justice Henry Bird’s whose inquiry was established in 1947 to study JC losses publicly reported in 1951. The Bird Commission “vindicated the state’s actions and portrayed the dispossession as legitimate state intervention” (p.324). iv) In 1968, Justice Sheppard of the Exchequer Court heard the Iwasaki case. Iwasaki challenged the Custodian’s sales as a breach of trust. In 1970 Justice Sheppard released his decision that held that “there was no trust, nor any breach of trust” (pp.284-5).
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BOOK
A friend’s child returned home from school after a grade-school show and tell. She had described the wartime experiences of her grandparents. A fellow classmate had heckled her saying it was all lies, that such things didn’t happen In Canada. Perhaps some younger Asian Canadians might feel the same way. However, the Covid pandemic has unleashed the deep roots of anti Asian racism, such that 30% of Chinese Canadians and 27% of Korean Canadians have reported incidents of racism. The release of Landscapes of Injustice is timely. Post George Floyd, Canadians are discussing systemic racism against Indigenous, Black and persons of colour. Our history is a stark reminder of the harm done by racism to individuals and communities.
The book’s findings call out for a closer study of the profiteers, the role of BC newspapers in fanning the flames, the widespread support of British Columbians for a white Canada and present-day supporters of white supremacy, groups like the Soldiers of Odin. In some ways Landscapes Of Injustice is a depressing read, however it contains a treasure trove of information that should spur more research and inquiry. Hopefully the essays contained in Landscapes of Injustice will provide teachers and students with information that tell our story and keep our history alive.
Available for purchase from the Nikkei National Museum