By CM Chiba
Asians have been in Canada long before Confederation in 1867 and over the many generations Asian Canadians have made invaluable contributions to this country be they social, political, economic, scientific, and in the arts and culture. And yet, I suspect that one would still be hard pressed to find such contributions explicitly mentioned in any Canadian public or high school textbook, let alone in any scholarly publication on Canadian history. In other words, Canadians of Asian heritage and their identity, sadly, remain on the margins of our collective historical psyche.
Instead, we have the month of May designated as "Asian Heritage Month". As a government sponsored website puts it, this came about when a motion was passed in 2001 by the Senate, not the House of Commons, for a declaration in recognition of our national "diversity" and to give "all Canadians an opportunity to learn more about the history of Asian Canadians and to celebrate their contribution to the growth and prosperity of Canada".
But Asian Heritage Month is really not for all Canadians, even Asian Canadians. Rather, I have come to believe that it serves merely as a public service announcement. A "feel good" reminder for the few that need to be reminded that Canada is a multicultural and multiethnic country, that this is a good thing and that it happens to include a sizable Asian Canadian population. Size, of course, matters, especially within the political and corporate commercial spheres. This is to say that Asian Canadians are only seen and appreciated en bloc as it were, as a collective representing a politically significant and thus potentially powerful constituent, which politicians and advertisers feel more than obliged now to pay attention to. If we all look alike then I suppose we must vote and buy alike as well. But never mind about the enormous diversity existing within the Asian Canadian collective in all its colourful and textured dimensions. Never mind about the diversity of narratives that have been told and rarely listened to and stories that have yet to be told and incorporated into the grand narrative of our home and native land.
Asian Heritage Month has no dialogue and its narrative does not include me.
If this is being cynical, I believe that I have good cause. I give you the singular example of the landmark negotiated $330M settlement agreement signed over twenty years ago on September 22, 1988, between the Government of Canada and the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC), to acknowledge and redress the injustices committed against Canadians of Japanese ancestry during and after the Second World.
Between 1941 and 1950 the Canadian government falsely branded 21,000 Canadian residents of Japanese ethnic origin as "enemy aliens". Under the draconian War Measures Act, the government forced Japanese Canadians from their homes, confined most in detention and prisoner-of-war- camps, sold off their real and personal property, which was used to pay for their own incarceration, and then forcibly dispersed them across Canada or to be shipped to a starving war torn Japan. Over 17,000 of those victimized by the Canadian government were Canadian citizens. The government claimed that these actions were necessary to ensure Canada's security. But in fact, as the government records show, the treatment of Japanese Canadians was motivated by hate, systemic racism and political opportunism.
The 1988 settlement included not only an unprecedented apology, but also, symbolic monetary redress to both individual Japanese Canadians and the Japanese Canadian community, the reinstatement of citizenship to those Canadians exiled to Japan, the removal of criminal records for those wrongly charged under the infamous War Measures Act, the establishment of a $12 Million community fund to help rebuild the JC community, the initiation of changes to Canada's laws to prevent other Canadians from suffering similar wrongs, and, the creation of a federal $24 Million Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF).
The shame and stigma placed upon Japanese Canadians by the government in an earlier time had become "a black mark" on Canadian tradition of justice and fair play. The destruction to a once vibrant flourishing west coast community was summarily destroyed. It was a betrayal of democracy itself. The NAJC fought so long and hard for an honourable resolution to the injustices of the war years as an act of citizenship and because we refused to see democracy betrayed. In calling for redress and having won, Japanese Canadians were finally able to affirm their right to exist in Canada and their faith in the principles underlying a free and democratic society.
The struggle for Japanese Canadian redress was a massive undertaking that had never been done before. It was an unprecedented achievement for human rights in Canada. It was orchestrated by a small Asian Canadian community, and inspired other historic victims of racial and ethnic discrimination and oppression to continue their fight for justice, like the Ukranian Canadians, Italian Canadians and Chinese Canadians. The struggle for Japanese Canadian Redress was and is truly a true-north-strong-and-free Canadian story. So why do most Canadians know little if anything about this monumental Canadian achievement?!?
It is I think salutary for us to consider what the late great literary and cultural critic, Edward Said, said about national and cultural identity. Said was specifically referring to Britain and the United States of America, but what he has to say is nonetheless relevant to Canada as well, and that is about how this notion of national identity has been conceived as fundamentally static, that identity needs to be acknowledged as being too varied to be a unitary and homogenous thing and that it requires a perspective that is fully sensitive to the reality of the historical experience. In his brilliant magnum opus, Culture and Imperialism, Said stated this: "What does need to be remembered is that narratives of emancipation and enlightenment in their strongest form were also narratives of integration not separation, the stories of people who had been excluded from the main group but who were now fighting for a place in it. And if the old and habitual ideas of the main group were not flexible or generous enough to admit new groups, then these ideas need changing, a far better thing to do than reject the emerging groups."
Asian Heritage Month is an idea I think that needs changing.