Grace Eiko Thomson is a second-generation Japanese Canadian, who with her parents and siblings lived in Paueru Gai (Powell Street, Downtown Eastside) in Vancouver until 1942 when they were sent to the internment site of Minto Mines, BC, then in 1945 to rural Manitoba. After restrictions were lifted, they re-settled in the City of Winnipeg (1950). Grace’s education focused on her need to overcome memories of racism and identity issues, through investigation of her cultural roots and through art. She graduated from University of Manitoba (BFA Hons. 1973-77), and University of Leeds, UK, (M. Soc. History of Art, 1990-91). As curator of various art galleries (1983-98), she concentrated on cross-cultural issues as well as women’s issues. In 2000, as Director/Curator, she launched the Japanese Canadian National Museum. She was President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians in 2008 and served on the National Executive Board from 2005 to 2010. She is mother to two sons and grandmother to five grandchildren, and currently participates in various Downtown Eastside activities and issues.
As a curator, writer, teacher, and activist, your work often focuses on the history and present-day relating to the Japanese diaspora; how has your lived experience as a Japanese-Canadian shaped your work?
I began my life as a person of Japanese ancestry (born to Japanese emigrant parents) as we were kindly called by some, more often simply by the derogatory term, ‘jap’, never Canadian, even as I had never been to or seen Japan… so this labeling by ‘others’ influenced how I lived my life, continuing even to this day. While many Japanese Canadian friends I had met during the internment years have found their space in the larger community, most seemingly living a good life today, many (like myself) even intermarrying…I could never forget leave behind those years of discrimination perhaps due to how my parents were treated through the internment and post internment years when their lives that they had hoped to have as immigrants to Canada were completely destroyed.
Beginning with university studies, after I was married, and could afford this, my focus was always on who I was. I began with basic Arts, moving to what was then called “Fine” Arts (Visual Art Practice) and examination of both Western and Asian Art Histories, essentially to ‘find’ myself, where I fitted, living here in Canada, a country of immigrants moving into Indigenous lands, coming to the realization that immigrants were classified with those of British and Western European ancestry (white) at the top. I was born into, raised, educated, and worked in this environment, in Canada, which was supposed to have been a democratic country, with opportunities for everyone, something I had to work hard to be accepted.
You have been heavily involved in curating cross-cultural exhibitions with Canadian and First Nations artists; what do you hope to see in the future of art in Canada?
My journey toward being accepted as ‘Canadian’, not Japanese Canadian (or ‘jap’), as we are always labeled due to the way we look (that is, ‘different’) led me, in my curatorial work, to focus on the various cultures that make up Canada, even finding through the process that our history is divided into not only economic class system, not only Asian Canadians, but also Eastern Europeans, below the British (or Western European).
With major generational change even within my lifetime, (beginning with someone like myself already in the ‘50s) intermarriage becoming a norm, and today children and grandchildren are of various mixed heritage contributing in various ways to Canada’s development.
What is interesting is that the younger generations were raised without much understanding of their parents’ and grandparents’ histories. Most parents or grandparents, like me, never seriously discussed their experiences of racism or in my case, internment, with our children and grandchildren, moving on with our lives, even as we never forgot the past. However, many young people today are taking interest in their various heritage through academic studies, their findings recorded or revealed in their various artwork, i.e., plays, performances, dances, stories, even manga (cartoons).
What do you think are the best ways to approach intergenerational community building and revitalization? How can we best preserve the heritage of places like historic Japantown, and educate the community about its history?
Most important is to remember and to share/teach in classrooms the history of this place and its early residents, which represent Canada’s history of development, which included cross-cultural issues. Perhaps there should be more gatherings and discussions on this topic, especially that during this time, such racism has become normal, once again.
Names like ‘Japantown’ were likely started by the media, more often named “Japtown”, before 1942, when a thriving community developed and existed in and around Powell Street, my own parents living on Alexander Street, not far from the Japanese Language School. Some Japanese Canadians returned to this area in the 50s, after restrictions on movement were lifted, but by this time, this area was not an inviting place for families to return to or to re-settle despite the history that brought them back… completely abandoned by the City of Vancouver, and left to turn into a skid row after 1942. However, the good memories of this area are preserved by the younger generation who never lived there, but heard stories of a struggling but thriving community, through development of Powell Street Festival Society (1977), which invites cross-cultural participation.
I believe it is also most important to the preservation of Canadian (B.C.) history to remember that the immigrant settlement started with displacement of the Coast Salish Nation, the original residents of this area. They were displaced by the early white immigrants to the West Coast, which then abandoned this area to move west, into the newly developed middle class area. Japanese Canadian settlement started at the turn of the century, as many of their immigrant men were being hired by nearby sawmills, or had started family lives when wives and families were allowed to join them…to become a home town for all workers living in the west coast area, many working on contract at various jobs.
There are, in the Japanese Canadian communities (as well other communities) much interest in this past, particularly at this time, as racism is rearing its ugly face in our everyday lives with the current pandemic originating in China (Asia) as we are told, offering racists opportunity to use this moment. I had, last year when the pandemic started, and before isolation came into effect, while walking through Garry Park in Steveston, with a couple of friends, yelled at by white middle aged large man, “Go back where you came from.” I was not going to engage in a conversation with such a person, so just yelled back “Stupid”, and later thought I should have asked him where he came from. Being white does not entitle him to this country, in fact, most definitely not. We are all uninvited, but came, and remained. (We reported this to the RCMP in Steveston, and found there were many other reports before us.)
So, the fact is, racism does not disappear, but require daily effort on the part of those of us who not only experienced such conduct by others, but also through the public school curriculum, also community centre activities.