VICTORIA — Within the stories of the Japanese Canadians cast out from British Columbia in the 1940s is a common thread that ties them all together.
Property. It’s something lost by all who were forcibly evacuated as Enemy Aliens, although the size and shape of what was taken is always different.
From fishing boats, businesses, and homes; heirlooms, treasures, and memories, they were all part of the Canadian government’s systematic dismantlement of the community, but a new project out of the University of Victoria is looking to weave back together the tale of what happened to Japanese Canadian property.
“People who had built up savings to buy a home, people who had built up a business over multiple decades, who had heirlooms that they have inherited from their parents and weren’t able to take with them when they were uprooted,” Jordan Stanger-Ross, project director of Landscapes of Injustice, tells Nikkei Voice.
“Many Japanese Canadians have a file that seeks to explain what happened to their property,” Stanger-Ross says. “A letter of the custodian of Enemy Property or a photo of an old house that they had owned. They have these personal memories of the event, but the notion of placing those individual pieces of information in a larger telling of the history I think appeals to people quite a bit.”
Stanger-Ross is the project’s director and heading up the land title research cluster of the team’s effort to document the forced sale of JC property.
More than just archival research, his work involves finding out what happened to Japanese Canadian property during the years it was rented and who ultimately benefited from its eventual sale during the Internment years.
As an associate professor at the University of Victoria and founding chair of UVIC’s committee for Urban Studies, he has experience in bringing together details that have gone astray or hidden deep within publically available files.
“There’s an enormous documentary record,” Stanger-Ross says. “The government agency that administered the forced sale of property, which operated under the Secretary of State during the Second World War.
Powell Street, Steveston, Salt Spring Island, and Maple Ridge are the four main sites of research currently, but Abe says the scope of the project could expand.
The first four years will be all research looking at land titles and gaining a geographic snapshot of how each community changed between the years, especially urban areas like Powell Street.
In the last few years, the team will create a museum exhibit that will travel from site to site.
To help decode the files and do original research, Stanger-Ross has a team of twelve university students and a steering committee that includes Michael Abe, president of the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society.
Abe brings his knowledge of British Columbia to the team and he’s received some positive reaction to the project’s goals.
“My cousin heard about this [project] and she said, ‘It’s great you’re doing this because my grandfather owned a house just outside of Crofton on Salt Spring Island.’ He wrote to them and told them not to sell his house,” Abe says.
“They sold his house and they sent him a cheque, but he sent it back saying he didn’t want it. She had heard this story and wanted to learn more, so she wrote to the Library Archives of Canada,” he says. “They sent her a file 294 pages and every piece of information documented and beautifully too. This is why those four areas are going to take four years to go through and so that information can be assembled.”
The seven-year project is helped by funding through a SSHRC grant. The project has been given 2.5 million dollars in funding over the next seven years and have brought on 13 partner institutes – including the Royal B.C. Museum, the Nikkei National Museum, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration – providing more than 3 million dollars in funding.
To find out more about the project be sure to visit its website that provides an overview: www.landscapesofinjustice.com
Featured image: A photo taken from the first formal meeting of the project’s steering committee including Michael Abe, centre in blue, and Jordan Stanger-Ross, second from the right. Photo courtesy: Landscapes of Injustice