Walking in the Footsteps of History
Walking Tour uncovers history of Japanese Canadians and unions in the Downtown Eastside
Japanese immigration to Canada began in the 1800s, with men looking for work in BC’s mines and the fishing industry. By 1900, there were nearly 5,000 Japanese Canadians living in BC, many in the salmon-fishing and -canning town of Steveston, and most of the rest living around Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver.
On Saturday, May 7, Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs and Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association President Lorene Oikawa will lead a guided tour of the Downtown Eastside, highlighting the history of Japanese Canadians and unions as part of Vancouver Asian Heritage Month.
Participants will meet at Chapel Arts 304 Dunlevy and make three or four stops over the course of the tour.
Oikawa has deep roots in BC and will share stories from her family history, including the story of the 1907 anti-Asian riot from the Oikawa perspective, drawn from the journal of a family member who experienced the riot first-hand.
With a background in the labour movement, Meggs has a longtime interest in the JC fishing history. His 1991 book, Salmon: The Decline of the West Coast Fishery, won the 1992 Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing and includes a section on T. Buck Suzuki, Oikawa’s uncle.
INTERVIEW: Lorene Oikawa + Geoff Meggs
Geoff, what is your connection to the labour movement in general and the Downtown Eastside in particular?
Geoff Meggs For 12 years I was editor of The Fisherman, the newspaper of the United Fishermen and Allies Workers Union. The union hall was at 138 E Cordova. I knew many of the Japanese Canadian fishermen and helped create the T Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. I wrote Salmon: the Decline of the Pacific Fishery in 1991, which included a lot of original material in the struggle of the Japanese fishermen to end discrimination. I also wrote about Suzuki’s remarkable efforts to bring Japanese Canadians back into the industry after the Second World War and have long been interested in the story of the Japanese Canadian community and its struggle for equality.
Lorene, you have a history with the labour movement – can you share some of that with us?
Lorene Oikawa I was the executive vice president of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) from 2005 to 2014. I was the first Asian Canadian to serve on the executive. I represented the National Union on the Canadian Labour Congress’s human rights committee, and I was chair of the BC Federation of Labour’s human rights committee.
Buck Suzuki was your uncle – did you know him well? Did he have an influence on your own politics?
LO Unfortunately I was too young, and then he was gone. I found out a lot after I become active in the labour movement. His name would come up in a conversation and the other person was astonished at the connection, and I would hear a story about what he had done. Too many of the ones who know the stories are leaving us so unless we document the stories no one will know.
Maybe that’s part of what drives me to seek out, document, and share the stories of the Japanese Canadian community. Too many times I hear about the amazing accomplishments after the person is gone, and I wish I had known and been able to discuss their experience, and their ideas.
As an adult I spent time with my auntie Jean (Buck’s wife), sitting in her kitchen eating home baked cookies, and discussing all sorts of topics.
The Japanese Canadians were barred from many professions – what was their relationship with the labour unions?
It wasn’t good and Japanese Canadians weren’t allowed to join them. Unions were a part of the 1907 anti-Asian riots. In 2007, I worked with the Vancouver and District Labour Council, part of the Anniversaries of Change consortium with other labour organizations, academia and cultural groups such as the GVJCCA to recognize 2007 as an anniversary year in a quest for social justice and a truly inclusive Canada.
There was a general perception among the general population that the Japanese Canadians were a threat to their livelihoods, did this fear extend to the unions? Was there an official labour stance on the Japanese (or Asian) “problem”?
LO Sadly, yes, the unions were a part of the fear mongering. Back in 2007, I helped research the records of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (precursor to the Vancouver and District Labour Council), because the Vancouver and District Labour Council wanted to take responsibility and apologize for their role in the anti-Asian riots in 1907.
Even though they weren’t a part of the union, the Japanese Canadian fishers did stand with the Caucasian fishers during strikes such as the one in 1893, and worked alongside the Caucasian fishers to prevent a disaster during a storm in 1900. Provincial legislation which stripped Asian Canadians of the right to vote in 1895 was strongly supported by the labour movement. Without the right to vote, Japanese Canadians could not enter most professions. Japanese immigrants who were in Canada for three years could apply for a naturalization certificate and then obtain a fishing license.
What can people expect to learn when they take part in this walk?
People will learn a bit of the history of the labour movement and the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver, and it will help them understand what a thriving and vibrant community it was. I think people will be surprised by how much used to be here and how much was lost when the Japanese Canadians were uprooted, dispossessed, and dispersed, during and after the war.