Japanese Canadian elder Grace Eiko Thomson speaks to Mayor and Council

Grace Eiko Thomson speaks to City Council
Grace Eiko Thomson speaks to City Council

On September 25th, the City of Vancouver passed a motion to formally apologize for its role in the internment and forced removal of Japanese Canadians during and after the war. The Human Rights Committee of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association invited Grace Eiko Thomson, an independent curator, cultural historian, and Redress activist, to speak to the historic context of the City’s motion.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are privileged to be on the traditional territory of the Squamish, the Musqueam, and the Tsleil Waututh First Nations.

I am a second generation Japanese Canadian, whose residence before 1942 was at 511 Alexander Street, in the area known today as the DTES, or as historic Japantown.

My life in Vancouver, and those of my parents and my siblings, together with some 22,000 Japanese Canadians, who lived along the West Coast of British Columbia, came to an abrupt stop in 1942.  As you know, we were uprooted from our homes with little notice and sent to internment sites in the interior of BC.

I am a former President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC).  The organization’s mandate includes working together with other communities to eliminate discrimination and other injustices.

As most of you are aware, Canada and Vancouver’s history, regarding how Asian Canadians were treated in the 19th into the 20th century, have little if anything to be documented with pride.  In fact, from the moment the immigrants arrived, they were defined by the dominant society supported by the governments, as less than human, paid less for work of equal value.  Although allowed to become Naturalized Canadians, voting rights were withheld, even as many, to show loyalty, fought and lost their lives in both the First and Second World Wars, and even as the second generation men and women were graduating from UBC with distinction.

As you are also aware, NAJC’s Redress Committee, after more than four years of negotiating with various federal government officials, and educating both their own communities and the media, finally reached an Agreement on September 22, 1988, 25 years ago, signed by the Prime Minister and by the President of NAJC.

It is to be remembered that the Redress Committee did not ask for an apology from the Government, but an acknowledgement, that what Japanese Canadians experienced during the War and after was unjust. 

The City of Vancouver’s Motion offers an Apology to Japanese Canadians. As a Japanese Canadian senior, who has for most of her life worked for human rights in our communities, I am very pleased that this Motion, proposed during the City’s proclaimed “Year of Reconciliation,” offers not only an Apology “for failing to protect her residents of Japanese descent” but further pledges to uphold “the principles of human rights and equality now and in the future,” “to ensure such injustices will not happen again to any of its residents.”  

I am also very pleased that the more learned younger generations within the Japanese Canadian communities today are taking great interest, in DTES of today, the area once called Japantown, as they struggle to find meaning in “redress” in the context of their own lives, and in the context of their environment.  Through the years many have been attending, and volunteering time and effort to, Powell Street Festival, held annually since 1977, in Oppenheimer Park, which offers them opportunities to observe lives in these areas, this area historically abandoned by the City since Japanese Canadians were displaced in 1942.

I would submit that, as recipients of this Apology and the City of Vancouver’s pledges, we take responsibility to consult and work with the City of Vancouver, to ensure not only that our history is not forgotten, but most importantly to maintain and preserve this unique area, putting an end to its history of displacements which began as early as with the displacement of the Coast Salish Nations, and listen to the voices of the communities today which are experiencing social and economic exclusion.

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