Young activists in the Japanese Canadian community: a spotlight on social justice lawyer Kendall Yamagishi
by Erica Isomura
Japanese Canadian community activism in the 1980’s was sparked by the injustices of internment. Today, our community is no longer the main target of the explicit racism that happens in North America. Instead, topics such as Islamophobia, Black Lives Matter, and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two spirit people are at the forefront of social awareness. In a post-redress generation, what are young people doing to address current issues?
28-year old Kendall Yamagishi from Lethbridge, Alberta takes on anti-racism work through social justice law. Yamagishi is a criminal defense lawyer in downtown Toronto, where she supports clients from arrest up until their trial. She describes her job as something between a lawyer and a social worker, though she only has formal training in law. Kendall supports people who are often unfairly targeted by police as she says that “race, class, and dis/ability, play huge roles in who ends up before the courts.”
She explains that her work takes into consideration the “choices” we are given based on our social location and privilege. For example, if someone living on the street is poor and suffers severe mental health issues, they likely do not have the same options to survive in society as someone with a stable income, access to health care, food, shelter, and family support. Yamagishi points out how slip ups are noticed more often in Canada if someone is poor and Black, Indigenous, Muslim or South Asian because stereotypes and discrimination influence who is targeted most frequently by authorities.
For Yamagishi, being Japanese Canadian has contributed to her understanding of the impacts of racism and systemic inequalities in Canada. “I think a lot of people see criminal defense lawyers as ‘helping bad guys’ but many people I work with have been victimized themselves. Just because you’ve been charged with a crime doesn’t mean you’re guilty.”
One court that Yamagishi works at attempts to take systemic factors such as colonialism and racism into account during trials. Gladue court, also know as the Aboriginal Persons court, was initiated to address the significant over-representation of Indigenous people in the Canadian criminal justice system. The Supreme Court sees this overrepresentation as a “crisis in the Canadian criminal justice system” due to the discrimination faced by Indigenous people in the system. This includes social impacts from historical/ongoing displacement, cultural genocide, and racist legislation such as Indian Residential Schools and the 60’s scoop, or “stolen generations.”
Despite the emotional challenging nature of Yamagishi’s work, there are many things she likes about her job. “So many of the people whom I work with have had traumatic experiences on levels that I will never be able to understand, but show amazing resiliency … I’m really glad that I have a job where I can fight against things that I think are wrong in our society like the criminalization of poverty or the overincarceration and targeting of Indigenous people.”
Although Yamagishi’s work is very politically charged, she very humbly told me she only “dabbles in activism.” However, she believes in the power of grassroots activism for progressive social change and can cite many examples: “Before 1949, as a Nikkei person, I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote or even become a lawyer. Recently, Black Lives Matter Toronto successfully campaigned for an inquest into the killing of Andrew Loku by police.”
Beyond her paid work, Yamagishi is involved with volunteer initiatives to foster Nikkei youth engagement and community-building in Toronto and is writing a series of articles on race with a group of young people from the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders Conference. She is also involved with the Law Union of Ontario.
If you are interested in further learning about the criminal justice system in Canada, here are three suggestions from lawyer Kendall Yamagishi on what you can do:
1) Learn from people most targeted by the criminal justice system
“I don’t suggest grilling the first person you meet who has ever been arrested and asking them questions, that could be hugely re-traumatizing. However, many communities who are disproportionately targeted have a lot of good resources online. Idle No More and Black Lives Matter chapters have set up facebook and twitter accounts.”
2) Access published reports from legal clinics
“A few years ago I contributed to a report done by a legal clinic called Justice for Children and Youth that’s available online called Changes – the Affidavit Project. It’s a difficult read, but does a good job of capturing the experiences of youth in the criminal justice system. I would suggest reading the quotes from the youth who were part of the project.”
3) Read alternative media
“Within the last couple of years or so Vice.com has had some really solid articles about the criminal justice system in Canada. I’d suggest searching “prison + Canada”.
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