The othering of immigrants in Canada

Joy Kogawa next to Places That Matter plaque. Photo: monnibo/Flickr

This summer, I completed a writer's residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today's standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly "legal" -- approved by Canada's Parliament, the country's main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the "homogeneity of Canadians." This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the "othering" of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as "enemy aliens" under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn't happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The "othering" of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants "stealing jobs" from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn't cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: "It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe."

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today's politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain "social harmony"? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) "think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014)," whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) "think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014)," and only a mere six per cent "think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014)."

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that "it's hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa," basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn't matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other's false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa's family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada's history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the "Other" as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the "Others" as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure -- it won't take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven't learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The "othering" of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: "How did these horror stories happen?"

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com

Photo: monnibo/Flickr

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