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As the inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act is underway, one Japanese Canadian whose family was subject to the War Measures Act reflects on the conflict the act invokes for her.
In February, my cousin, Janis Bridger, and I signed a contract to co-write a children’s book about our grandmother’s internment experience as a Japanese Canadian during the Second World War. Coincidently, the day we signed the contract, Feb. 14, was our grandmother’s birthday. But, most ironically, it was also the day the government invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time, the act that replaced the War Measures Act, which the Canadian government used to uproot, incarcerate, and dispossess people of Japanese ancestry in the 1940s.
In 1942, my grandmother—then a new mother with my father, who was five weeks old—was one of the 22,000 men, women, and children, most of whom were born in Canada, who were labelled “enemy aliens” and forced into internment camps or “interior housing centres.” Later, the government sold all their belongings, using the funds to pay for the cost of their internment. After the war, when Japanese Canadians were scattered across the country, some even going to wartorn Japan, my grandparents, like so many others, couldn’t return to their homes and had to start their lives again with next to nothing.
In 1988, when the government apologized for its treatment of Japanese Canadians during the war, the War Measures Act was replaced by the Emergencies Act. Japanese Canadians against the War Measures Act hoped, like many other groups who have suffered racism and violence, that “never again” would something so atrocious happen at the hands of the Canadian government.
So, when the government invoked the Emergencies Act this year, I was shocked. It was a punch echoing through history, but one that left me utterly conflicted. I can’t speak for all Japanese Canadians, but I think many of us felt it. We were fundamentally against invoking an act that might lead to the same human rights violations our families suffered, but we were also opposed to the truckers’ occupation and their disregard for others. ‘How did we get here?’ I wondered.
The first time I attended a protest was the Days of Action against Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ massive erosion of public funding. At an intersection in downtown Toronto, a car tried to press through the walking protesters. A police officer told the driver it was our right to protest and that he should turn around and go home. My teenage self was so proud. We were in this together, the police officer, me, and all of us gathered in downtown Toronto. And why not? Students, police officers, we were all the public. We relied on the same education and community services to make our society and relationships work well.
Fast forward a few years, and things began changing dramatically. Walking away from a protest against George Bush receiving an honorary degree at the University of Toronto, where I was a student—a ceremony during which several professors walked out in protest—a police officer ran at me, grabbed me by my collar, and threw me over a fence. As I saw stars, friends and strangers pulled the man off me, yelling “shame” and demanding his badge number.
After that, the protests I attended got plain scary. At anti-war, pro-democracy, or environmental protests, the cops were always there first. They set up scaffolding on the sides of streets, blocked off areas of cities, infiltrated organizing groups, checked the backgrounds of protest leaders, and even detained them. As protestors walked through the streets, “robocops,” as we called them, all dressed in black armour suits, stood on the scaffolding, cameras pointed at us, guns at the ready, police helicopters flying overhead. Tear gas and water cannons weren’t far off.
But the occupation in Ottawa earlier this year turned things on their heads. These protesters came in the luxury and protection of huge trucks—weapons—when as anti-war and pro-democracy protestors, we had only our bodies, feet, and voices. And they came with funding and resources, large amounts from businessmen and foreign donations.
The corporate interests we protested were now backing the “protestors.” The police who once kettled G20 protestors weren’t there. Having large trucks and donated, even foreign, funds should have been more than enough cause for the police to investigate the truckers and intervene. Never mind that many protestors were happy to tout racist paraphernalia, like Confederate flags and swastikas, suggesting connections to racist and neo-Nazi hate groups.
How could protestors for hate blocking busy city streets in Canada’s capital get a pass, while anti-war or anti-capitalist demonstrators and Wet’suwet’en land defenders blocking rural roads only used by gas companies are under surveillance and often met with brutality? And, given how involved the police are in these other instances, any suggestion that there just wasn’t the funding or numbers of officers or that they couldn’t have acted sooner, as what seems to be appearing so far from the inquiry, seems sorely deficient.
What surprised me most was my idea of protesting had been turned upside down by those claiming freedom. Those protestors were against so-called “medical segregation,” as one sign read, as if their experience being required to have a vaccine in some situations during the limited time of this pandemic was anything like the systematic racism that Black people in North America endured for over a hundred years following slavery. Never mind the segregation Indigenous people have faced for hundreds of years in the reserve system or residential schools, people of Ukrainian origin faced during the First World War, or Japanese Canadians endured incarcerated in livestock buildings and detained for years in camps and ghost towns in the interior of B.C.
The irony of those choosing not to follow public health mandates likening their plight to those who were oppressed not because of any choices they made, but because of their skin colour, screams white privilege. As does the new premier of Alberta’s recent claim that those who are unvaccinated are the “most discriminated against group.”
Most of all, protesting for me has always been about standing up for the community and what we share in common—education, democracy, and the environment. But the Ottawa protesters seemed to stand for extreme personal sovereignty. It seems they expected to be autonomous to the point of doing what they wanted regardless of the needs of others, the larger community, or the healthcare system.
Here, it’s a choice to have the vaccine and to follow the rules for the common good (or for your own good), but such a choice also has consequences. And, if people want to trump the public, it doesn’t make sense also to insist that they still deserve to have its common benefits. (Nor did it make sense that they wanted an end to vaccine mandates that were ending anyway because Covid numbers were going down and our healthcare system was recovering.)
The protestors wanted to be exempt from public rules. It seems Premier Doug Ford also thinks he’s above the law, in his legal challenge against the summons to appear at the public inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act. When my grandparents were interned by the government, they could have only wished they’d be treated like everyone else, not as the exception.
Even before the war and War Measures Act stripped them of all of their civil liberties, rights, and property and forced them into exile, these Canadian citizens—many of them Canadian-born—were denied the vote, denied fishing licences, not allowed to work in many professions, and prevented from entering certain stores and other establishments. They knew that being part of society should give them the same rights, but they also knew that meant being responsible to each other.
I hope soon we’ll repair enough to remember that freedom, perhaps another word for the frustration of having “nothing left to lose,” also signals a deep responsibility to the world and others. No one can or should live as a state of exception.
Dr. Lara Okihiro holds a MA from Goldsmiths, University of London (UK), and a PhD in English from the University of Toronto. She has lectured and published internationally on literature, the Japanese Canadian internment, issues of racism and social justice, and education.
She is currently completing a book, Lost Objects, on dispossession and hoarding in novels about the Japanese Canadian experience (McGill-Queens University Press) and a children’s novel, Obaasan’s Boots (Second Story Press), that she’s co-writing with her cousin on their family’s experience of removal and dispossession.
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