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Landscapes of Injustice is a collaborative research project between universities, museums and Japanese-Canadian groups that aims to uncover and grapple with the forced sale of Japanese-Canadian owned property during WWII. Professor Jordan Stanger-Ross, in partnership with Landscapes of Injustice, will publish an article in the coming weeks outlining the City of Vancouver’s role in the forced sale of Japanese Canadian property in WWII.
rabble spoke with Professor Stanger-Ross about the project and the forthcoming article. This interview has been condensed.
What does your article argue?
The article is focused on the urban origins, or the origins in Vancouver, of a policy that has generally been thought of as federal. That policy was a policy change. When Japanese Canadians were uprooted from the coast of British Columbia starting in the spring of 1942, they had received assurance in law that their property would be preserved and protected throughout the duration of the war. That the federal government was assuring them that this property would be preserved in their interest and be returned to them when it was possible to do so.
So Japanese Canadians left the coast of British Columbia with that assurance in hand. It was with that assurance that they made decisions about what to take with them and what to leave behind. What to sell, and what to preserve. It was with that assurance that many of them — thousands of them — registered their property, itemized their property for the Custodian of Enemy Property which was the body of federal government that was entrusted with this responsibility of preserving their property for the duration of the hostilities.
Then a year later, in January 1943, after all the Japanese Canadians had departed from the coast and most of their homes and farms were rented to tenants and many of their personal belongings had been placed in warehouses, the federal government reversed course and decided instead to sell all of those belongings.
So that’s been primarily understood by historians as an act of the federal government and what our project does is link records of the activity of the City of Vancouver to those federal records and demonstrates that the actions of the City had a significant role in the decision making process that led to that policy change.
How was the City of Vancouver more involved in the forced sale of Japanese Canadian property than once believed?
The story is a circuitous one where some actions by town planners have had unintended consequences. There were town planners who really played an advisory role in advising the City on zoning matters and other related planning issues. Members of the town planning commission had, for a long time, advocated for improved housing for marginalized and poor Vancouverites, and seeing significant obstacles in improving housing conditions for the poorest Vancouverites. They issued reports to this effect and those reports included their concern with certain areas of the city, including the east end of the city where the largest Japanese Canadian neighbourhood was located along Powell Street which town planners had long thought of as a slum and had sought since the 1930s, ineffectively, to see what they viewed as slum housing replaced with improved housing for poor residents, including people of Japanese-Canadian origin.
Their plans faced significant obstacles, among them they couldn’t get the government involved in this process which was necessary because landlords could do well just by holding their properties and there wasn’t a strong market incentive so you needed a public involvement to achieve their ends.
The second obstacle that they confronted was that there were residents of these so-called slums and it wasn’t entirely clear where the residents would be during redevelopment initiatives. That’s a problem that has plagued redevelopment and renewal plans in the post-war period too.
So some of those planners, in the summer of 1942, observed what was going on with Japanese Canadian owned properties and thought that maybe those two major obstacles had been overcome here with the federal government vested with the property of hundreds of Japanese Canadians, many of those properties located in a well-known so-called slum in the east end and at the same time the residents of that so-called slum were being uprooted and interned elsewhere. So maybe, thought some planners, this is an opportunity to realize longstanding goals of housing reform.
They put this idea to City Council and at City Council level this was taken up by George Buscombe, a City Councilor who was well known as being one of the most xenophobic and anti-Asian and anti-Japanese councilors. He saw in this planning initiative the opportunity to pursue a different objective which was to ensure that Japanese Canadians could never return to the coast of British Columbia.
So he hears planners talking about how these properties are slums and instead of being rented to tenants they should instead, for planners, should be redeveloped or, for Buscombe’s views, just sold. He organized this initiative at the Council level and Council agreed and put together a special committee to investigate this matter and to correspond with the federal government. That committee was comprised of inspectors along with Buscombe. So you have the health inspector, medical inspector, electrical inspector and they initiated a campaign to inspect and condemn housing that was being rented for the duration of the war. Then they started sending notices of condemnation of properties to the federal government and to federal officials who are responsible for those properties. Federal officials responded and they start to talk about these notices of condemnation, they went on walking tours of the east end to see the houses and see whether the housing was substandard.
So the federal government starts to hear this message from the City that the properties in the east end are a slum that shouldn’t be rented to white tenants and instead they should be sold. The federal government did consider briefly a comprehensive redevelopment of the area and started some negotiations around that but realized pretty quickly that there were lots of non-Japanese Canadian owners in the area so they weren’t vested in large, continuous blocks of the city so they couldn’t really undertake a redevelopment plan without acquiring significant holdings. Instead they took a hold of this notion that the properties are slum properties and they used that as a justification for changing the policy from holding that and renting it out for the duration of the war to a policy of forced sale.
They end up using this notion that the neighbourhood is a slum in a very different way than was originally intended by town planners but they grab hold of that notion of slum properties that they shouldn’t be renting out and used it as justification for sale. They expand that justification well beyond properties that could be possibly considered slum properties outside of the east end neighbourhood, outside of the city altogether, they force the sale of personal belongings, and furniture and a range of others goods that really can’t be classified in that way at all. But what happens is that the question of the so-called slum in the east end of Vancouver is a prominent and foregrounded topic with all of the discussions that lead to that broader change of policy.
For example, on January 11 1943 when Cabinet Ministers met in the meeting that would decide this new policy, they authorized one of the people attending to write the new order of council that would change policy. They began that conversation with the discussion of the urban properties of Vancouver. That was very typical of these discussions, they often began with and gave a prominent role to this initiative of the City of Vancouver.
You spoke to Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang recently about the implications of this research. What are the implications? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I’d look at the implications in two different ways: what we hope readers will take from this and secondly what might be the political implications or how the City of Vancouver might respond.
On the first front, one of the things we’re doing in our project is to distinguish the question of the uprooting and internment of Japanese Canadians from the policy of dispossessing them of all of their belongings and homes and businesses. Those were policies that happened separately at different times and the role of the City and the arguments about the slum in the east end of the city help us to see how very different kind of ideas were used in the discussion that led to each policy.
So after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and into the early part of 1942, discussions about the uprooting and internment of Japanese Canadians are connected with discussions around the security of the Pacific coast. It’s a near consensus among scholars that security played no actual role, there was never any Japanese Canadians found guilty of any act of sabotage or wrongdoing but that conversation around the uprooting and internment still calls forward these questions around what should or can a nation do to defend itself at a time of perceived insecurity.
The dispossession, however, is a different story that unfolded later when there wasn’t really that sense of security concern. The rented houses warehouses of the personal belongings of Japanese Canadians obviously posed no security threat. So I think as we look back on that history I’ve been thinking about a notion of what gets bundled together in a context of perceived national insecurity. People will look back on this and say “well, it was a time of war,” but in fact these are distinct policies and what it meant to be at war changed over time and some of these actions could be discussed with a reasonable connection to security and some could not.
That careful scrutiny of what actions are actually related in any way whatsoever to security, what actions can be brought into a conversation around national security and which ones are really just being falsely bundled together with security or are being covered over with ideas of security or perceptions of insecurity or fear. I think that conversation is very relevant to the present moment. This would be things that won’t improve national security taking cover under a perception of national insecurity. So barbaric practices, tip lines, measures of legislation disproportionately around Canadian national security but actually serves no real benefit to Canadians from a security perspective.
As we look back on this history and untangle the dispossession from the uprooting and internment we see a historical context where other agendas could be pursued under the cover of purported national security. That’s a kind of conversation I think we should be having, that we should be vigilant around in the coming decades as I think this is going to continue to be a public issue.
One of the resources for us as we confront those challenges is a discussion of our history in the related area. It’s not going to be the only useful conversation we can have but I hope it’s one.
That’s a broad goal. Now more narrowly, politically. The project itself, Landscapes of Injustice, is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada as a research and educational initiative. So it’s our mandate to research this history and to bring it into public discussions in every way that we can. So going to talk with Councilor Jang on my part is a Project Director is one of the ways in which to bring this history into public discussion.
I was in that meeting with Vivian Rygnestad who has also received a lot of the coverage in the period since and she’s the chair of our community council. The community council is an arms-length body from the project that’s comprised of established and emerging leaders within the Japanese Canadian community. She had been part of the previous negotiations with the City around its 2013 apology so she has that background and she knows Councillor Jang. On that committee are also some major figures within the National Association of Japanese Canadians and major figures in the recent history of the redress movement like Art Miki and so to me it was my role to bring this bring this matter to the attention of Council, to share that story with the press, but as for what the actual political discussions that might follow, that’s sort of outside the scope of the project as it falls more appropriately into the purview of the people most affected by these policies — Japanese Canadians who can make the choices that they will around continuing engagement with the City.
Kerry Jang was very receptive to hearing this information, he spent a lot of time with us, he looked through the documents that established these connections, he was familiar with some of the figures from previous research that the City has conducted like George Buscombe was somewhat known to him. He floated possible actions by the City that would help to remind Vancouverites of this history and to help to make it useful as the City — in ways that I’ve been suggesting — continues to confront questions of how to uphold civil and human rights inside a context of perceived national insecurity. Those were the questions that he was asking — how can this information help the City, for example, accommodate Syrian refugees.
I’ll be interested to see what comes out of what, I hope, continue to be discussions between the City and Japanese Canadians around that but it’s somewhat outside of my purview to take an active role in any kind of political negotiations around that.
To learn more about Landscapes of Injustice and its research project, visit their website.
Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen’s University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen’s News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now rabble’s News Intern.