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Landscapes of Injustice: unearthing our uneven past and finding new paths forward

When I began the conception and design of the Landscapes of Injustice partnership, I had no idea what our most dynamic and impactful activity would be. Or, rather, I had many ideas – it’s just that those ideas were wrong. While our team is proud, now that our work is done, to count many other achievements, we’ve been blown away by community response to what I once imagined as a minor aspect of our work – the digital archives.

There are thousands of archival researchers out there. Thousands of people will squint at dark, grainy, and sometimes inscrutable microfilmed government documents, when those documents touch upon their lives. One of the most important lessons of Landscapes of Injustice is that deep archival research and community engagement run hand-in-hand.

More than a dozen organizations and close to 100 people participated in Landscapes of Injustice, a 2014-2022 partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We aimed to tell a new history of the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s, one centred on the dispossession of virtually everything they owned when they were uprooted from their lives in coastal British Columbia. Rather than temporary panic at a time of war, we emphasized the permanent and deliberate killing of home. Neighbours ransacked and looted the personal belongings that Japanese Canadians were forced to leave behind, and then officials auctioned off everything that remained. The forced sale of houses, farms and businesses continued long after the guns of war went silent. As a result, when Japanese Canadians were finally permitted to move freely in Canada – a permission delayed until 1949 – they had nothing to return to. Motivated and co-led by key organizations in the community, including the Nikkei National Museum and the National Association of Japanese Canadians, our partnership told this story.

A variety of initiatives ensured that our research was not “merely” academic. We published books and articles and were honoured by the reception and recognition of this work by scholars. However, our partnership always aimed to reach a wider audience. Working with teachers and curators as well as our community council, we created resources for use in elementary and secondary classrooms across Canada as well as exhibitions and digital storytelling sites for general audiences. Our capstone exhibition, Broken Promises, continues to tour – it is currently at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax and is being translated for exhibition in Japan. In Esquimalt, British Columbia, our team had the opportunity to collaborate with the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society to support the construction of a building with interpretive materials that will convey the history of the dispossession – in that case of Canada’s first Japanese style gardens and teahouse – to generations of Canadians.

Despite all our planning, we did not anticipate the inspiration that would arise from a digital repository of hundreds of thousands of records, drawn primarily from Library and Archives Canada. Our digital archival site has received over 100,000 visitors since its launch in 2021. In the summer of 2022, 14 Japanese Canadians published reflections in British Columbia History, describing discoveries that they made in the archives. Sally Ito explained that she could practically hear her aunt’s voice in her handwritten negotiations with government officials. For Nana Spence, the casefiles served as “cement that is gluing all those loose ends together.” Michael Abe, our Project Manager, who organized gatherings of hundreds of Japanese Canadians to discuss the archives, explained the “myriad of emotions” experienced in community-based research with these records.

Meanwhile, poets, artists, playwrights, filmmakers, and choreographers were busy with archival materials too. Annie Sumi and Brian Kobayakawa used lists of confiscated belongings in Custodian of Enemy Property casefiles as part of their multi-media art installation, Kintsugi. In studio with members of their families, they took turns reading from the files. “Somehow, hidden in weight of these words,” their exhibition notes explain, “there was lightness, laughter and movement” which their exhibition brings to light.

When we began our project, I imagined our archival research as a foundation for other outputs that would reach the public. They should be made available online, I thought, primarily for use by other academics. But experts within the community, including Michael Abe, and Nikkei National Museum Archivist Lisa Uyeda, knew that the digital archives could be much more than that. They knew the archives would be a fount of community engagement and creativity.

Being wrong (or, perhaps, the chance to learn) is one of the joys of community-based research. Realizing that our digital archive was public resource has been tremendously affirming. It was created through a pairing of specialized historical knowledge with professional and community-based expertise. The response to these materials reflects the appetite, outside the academy, for hard-nosed archival research. It demonstrates just how many people are readers of historical sources and interpreters of the past. The digital archive, at least as much as any other output of Landscapes of Injustice has bolstered my faith in sustained partnership as a key approach to unearthing our uneven past and finding new paths forward.

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