A public panel event, “I Know We’ll Meet Again: Correspondence and the Forced Dispersal of Japanese Canadians,” organized by the Asian Library and the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program (ACAM), took place as a Zoom webinar on March 1, 2022. The event launched a digital exhibition featuring select materials from the Joan Gillis Fonds.
Almost 200 people tuned in to hear the panel with several questions and comments posted. We are grateful to have so many attendees from around the world, including family members of some of the letter writers, members of the Japanese-Canadian community, and Grade 6 and 7 classes from a local elementary school.
As we acknowledge the 80th anniversary of the forced dispersal of Japanese Canadians from the coastal regions of British Columbia last week, we are most grateful to our panelists, Laura Ishiguro, Angela May, Carolyn Nakagawa, Lisa Uyeda, and Nicole Yakashiro, for their incredible panel presentations and conversations.
We are also deeply thankful to the UBC Equity & Inclusion Office and Public Humanities Hub for generously providing funding support. Many thanks also to Dr. Susan Parker, University Librarian, for providing introductory comments alongside Dr. John Paul (JP) Catungal, ACAM’s Program Director (Interim), who was also on the organizing team. Mya Ballin and Sasha Gaylie, Masters Students at UBC School of Information, created the beautiful online exhibit as part of their Professional Experience work at UBC Library Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC).
Finally, and most importantly, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to the letter writers and their family members, who have graciously permitted the Library to digitize the letters and make them openly accessible.
The panel featured the following speakers:
Moderated by Nicole Yakashiro, PhD Student in the Department of History, a panel of four Japanese Canadians shared their diverse responses to and reflections on a collection of letters preserved in UBC Library Rare Books and Special Collections. The Joan Gillis fonds was acquired in 2018 by the Library and contains 149 letters and 10 photographs, sent to donor Joan Gillis by a group of young Japanese Canadians she met while attending Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey. These letters written from farms and work camps in Northern British Columbia, Manitoba, and Alberta after the students were forcibly dispersed from their homes provide us with a rare glimpse into the life of young Japanese Canadians during this dark period.
Laura Ishiguro, Associate Professor in the Department of History, gave a powerful talk on a postcard depicting the Alexandra Bridge in Spuzzum, BC, sent from Al Ohama to Joan Gillis in 1942. She demonstrated how the history of colonialism symbolized in the image of the bridge gave haunting context to Al’s seemingly light-hearted message written on the back.
Lisa Uyeda, Collections Manager, Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, showcased archival records and artefacts existing within institutions across Canada to give depth to the personal accounts found on the letters. Her discussion on censorship particularly sparked lively chat discussions among the audience, and her talk on cameras and photographs poignantly illustrated the losses the letter writers suffered during the dispersal.
Angela May, artist and a PhD student in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, presented her visual art, six portraits each of letter writers with a faded background of her own letters back to them. The audience was mesmerized by her imaginative artwork and compelling talk on the complexity of people. To see Angela’s art featured at the event on her YouTube channel, please go to https://youtu.be/kH_5mqo4dBw.
Carolyn Nakagawa, poet and playwright, and the Education Program Developer at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, read poems she had created in response to the letters. Carolyn explained that she fell in love with the six letter writers featured in the online exhibit and was drawn to the voices found on their letters. The sequence of voices and her original poem, entitled “Please write soon,” greatly moved the audience.
John Paul Catungal, Program Director (Interim), ACAM
Allan Cho, Community Engagement Librarian, Program Services, IKBLC
Phoebe Chow, Program Services Assistant, Asian Library
Bianca Chui, Graduate Academic Assistant, Asian Library
Laura Ishiguro, Associate Professor, History
Tomoko Kitayama Yen, Japanese Studies Librarian, Asian Library
Krisztina Laszlo, Archivist, RBSC
Szu Shen, Program Manager, ACAM
Chelsea Shriver, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian, RBSC