The Reflections of an Elder : Excerpts from an Interview with Ann Gomer Sunahara – Part II
by Chris Kurata
In the June issue of The Bulletin, we printed a conversation between Toronto scholar Chris Kurata and Ann Gomer Sunahara, author of The Politics of Racism (Lorimer, 1981), one of a number of texts that were pivotal in the successful campaign for redress. The Politics of Racism 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.
Our thanks go to Ms. Sunahara for agreeing to share her interview for the Thomas A. Fisher Library Japanese Canadian Collection at the University of Toronto that accompany the donation of her papers.
The following is part two of the conversation.
CK: What sorts of reactions did you get from the community to your book?
AGS: The reaction to The Politics of Racism was generally positive – certainly within the Edmonton JC Community, with whom I primarily interacted. We had always had a JC History table at the JC pavilion at Heritage Days, so between that and Gordon Hirabayashi, the local community knew what to expect from the book.
Elsewhere, I received some nice letters from Nisei including some of those I interviewed. And one young Sansei woman paid me the compliment that she did not know whether she had read the entire book because she kept getting so angry that she would throw it across the room in frustration and have to go for a walk to calm down before returning to it.
Of course there were negative reactions from the wider community in the form of hate mail and holocaust denial garbage that I sent on to the police. Some confused Japanese Canadians with the Imperial Japanese army. For example, one Chinese immigrant who called into a radio talk-show on which I was promoting the book to blame JCs for the actions of Japanese soldiers in China. I asked her whether, as an immigrant from China, she would accept being imprisoned, dispossessed and deported if Canada and China went to war? “No,” she answered, “I am a Canadian citizen!” “So were 75% of the uprooted Japanese Canadians,” I replied. I repeated that the book was about what the Canadian government had done to Canadians.
CK: During the campaign for redress, were you concerned about allying yourself with different groups or factions?
AGS: No. Firstly, Politics is a neutral, historical work and I was generally called upon to speak as a historian. JC internal politics in the 1970s was not relevant to the project. And the JC communities in which I lived, London and Edmonton, were too small to have factions.
Second, Politics was published in 1981 before the redress campaign got underway in 1983. I understand that divisions within some communities resulted from disagreement over whether or not to seek individual compensation as part of redress. As a non-JC, the type of compensation sought by the NAJC was none of my business.
Also, David and I never expected that the NAJC would actually achieve redress. Like Tom Shoyama, we thought it was politically impossible for a government to acknowledge past errors. For me, the redress campaign was an education exercise for the Canadian public. I hoped that they would learn the price of racism was not limited to the victim, but taints every Canadian.
I also wanted to help Dr. Art Shimizu’s fight to get rid of the War Measures Act and to provide an evidentiary context for the courts to use when adjudicating racism claims under then new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 1984, three years after Politics was published, and two years after the Charter came into effect, I was an articling student with the Alberta Court of Appeal. There the judges were struggling to figure out what the test “demonstrably justifiable in the free and democratic society” really meant. One remarked to me that my book made it clear that past behavior was not an acceptable measure of what was “justifiable.”
But the joy on David’s mother’s face when redress was achieved certainly made all the work for redress worthwhile.
CK: During your years at Justice, were your colleagues aware of your work? How did it influence your assignments?
AGS: Yes, my colleagues knew of my book. During the First Gulf War (Kuwait) in 1990-91, I was working at Justice Canada for the division that writes Acts and Regulations. I was worried about the potential for abuse of the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab Canadians and I asked my superior not to assign me any Gulf War emergency measures so that I could remain free from professional conflict should I need to leave government to oppose measures like those that had been used against Japanese Canadians. She readily agreed but asked me to provide my book and the NAJC materials to the emergency measures drafters to prepare them to recognize problematic laws. A few weeks later she told me that the Privy Council Office had asked our division to police any emergency measures to ensure that the Mulroney government could never be accused of acting like the King government during WW2. The Mulroney Cabinet had learned the first lesson of redress: short term political tactics that abuse or ignore civil and human rights will come back to bite – and to diminish a politician’s place in history.
CK: What can you share with us about how Cabinet dealt with the Redress file?
AGS: I have always presumed that the redress file was sent from Justice to the Multiculturalism Secretariat in the mid 1980s because of an erroneous belief that the affected JCs were all immigrants. I have been told that the shift surprised some at Justice Canada where of a team of lawyers had already reviewed every document cited in Politics to verify the facts.
However, the shift to the Multicultural Ministry proved fortuitous in the long run because it put the work already done at Justice HQ into the hands of legal and policy advisors who wanted to resolve the injustice. It is they who developed the principles that underpin the redress settlement, principles that have since been used to resolve several other injustices.
CK: Looking back, what do you think were the significant factors that made redress possible?
AGS: I think it was the coming together of several events. First, through the NAJC Redress Campaign, Canadians had came to understand that what was done to JCs was an abuse of power that undermined Canadian democracy. Canadians accepted that until abuses of power are acknowledged and corrected, they remain a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of every Canadian. If the rights of one kind of Canadian can be abused, then the rights of any Canadian can be abused.
Second, the Mulroney Government decided in 1987 to replace the War Measures Act with the Emergencies Act. While the NAJC campaign helped in this decision, the main impetus came from a visceral hatred of the War Measures Act among francophones in Quebec because of its arbitrary use in the FLQ Crisis of October 1970.
Third, by 1988, the legal and policy advisors on the file had succeeded in convincing their masters that the injustices experienced by JCs were suitable for ex-gratia payments, payments that a government makes because it is the right thing to do, not because the law requires it.
Fourth, by April 1988 all signs indicated that Japanese Americans would achieve redress. A redress Bill, HR442, had passed both houses of Congress and awaited President Reagan’s signature.
Finally, in anticipation of the US Bill becoming law, Brian Mulroney quietly entrusted the redress file to his most trusted and capable Minister of State: Lucien Bouchard. Once in Bouchard’s hands, matters moved swiftly. Negotiated over two days, a redress agreement was reached on August 25. It was quickly approved by the Cabinet and announced to Parliament on September 22, 1988.
CK: It’s almost 30 years now since the redress settlement. What legacy do you feel it has left? What legacy did you hope it would leave? Are there areas or endeavors you still hope will materialize?
AGS: The legacy of redress is the precedent it set for how to resolve injustice resulting from errors by governing bodies and agencies in Canada. The principles under which redress was awarded to JCs live on. They have been used many times since to resolve such injustices as: infection from tainted blood products; the Chinese Head Tax; damage from Agent Orange exposure – including compensating the disabled children of the affected workers and soldiers; abuse of First Nation and Inuit children in residential schools; exposure of military personnel to nuclear explosions, and, most recently, abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. The JC Redress Settlement provided a process and a template, for governments to follow in the principled resolution of such issues.
CK: How do you feel the legacy of redress affects the plight of those among us who continue to shoulder the burdens of the most egregious human rights violations not only in Canada but in North America? I think of course of our First Nations peoples and of Canadians and Americans of black ancestry.
AGS: In 1981 in Politics I describe the uprooting of JCs as “the best-documented abuse” of human rights in Canada but not the worst abuse. I hope that the worst abuse – the destruction of indigenous people in North America – will soon be better documented so all Canadians better understand that First Nations and Inuit are the ones to whom we owe the biggest apology and the biggest effort to try to mitigate the damage of three hundred years of abuse.
JCs were in camps for only seven years. Yet social problems directly attributable to their institutionalization were already manifesting when the camps were closed. First Nations peoples have been abused for hundreds of years and institutionalized under the Indian Act for over a century. Their abuse has been physical, mental, social, cultural and legal. There will be no quick fixes for the injustice and discrimination they have endured. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Recommendations alone will take years to implement and whole new ways of governance will have to evolve. And the solutions will have to be designed by the First Nations and the Inuit – not imposed by governments as has been the model since contact 400 years ago.
After redress was achieved, the NAJC tried to ally with and pass on the lessons learned to interested First Nations. I recall an excellent tri-party conference (NAJC, First Nations, Chinese Canadians) in Vancouver in the early 1990s. But that effort seemed to sputter out and die in the 1990s. Instead, working with First Nations on their issues was left to individual JCs, like Paul Kariya or my husband, who spent years building up relationships with First Nations leaders and working with them respectfully – irritated all the while by the institutional roadblocks thrown up by governments of all levels.
I cannot comment on racism faced by black Canadians or black Americans. I do not have the necessary depth of knowledge and have not had the opportunity to study the issues in depth.
CK: How does this legacy play in a post 911 world? Do we need to surrender human rights or relax the accountability of our public officials as a trade-off for our safety and security?
AGS: The politics of fear, exacerbated by 9/11 and other world terrorist events, are reminiscent of the JC experience in the first half of the twentieth century. The lies and half-truths told today about Islam and Islamic persons of colour are analogous to those told about JCs by the White Canada Association and BC politicians that you will find in the first chapter of my book.
Exploiting the politics of fear is a technique that bad politicians use to avoid changing policies and laws that they know are flawed (like the Indian Act) but that do not inconvenience them or their political “base.” Such persons refuse to build social housing allegedly because “it’s socialist” but really because their backers make more money building condos, and then, when a housing shortage results, blame the rising costs of a decent home on “foreign investors.”
Or to show that they are “fighting terror,” they bring in security legislation, like the Harper government’s Anti-terrorism Act (aka Bill C-51), that claims to unfetter law enforcement to better fight terrorists but omits the civilian oversight and restraint mechanisms that legal precedent and experience with the War Measures Act and other emergency laws have shown are necessary if human and civil rights in Canada are to be protected.
The work goes on. It will never finish. The human rights achievements of the past could be wiped out tomorrow if Canadians become complacent. As custodians of the history of Japanese Canadians, I hope that the Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei, no matter how diluted their bloodline gets, will learn about and remember the experiences of the Issei and Nisei, and understand that the fight for redress was a fight for the human rights of all Canadians.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.