May is Asian Heritage Month. It’s a time for Yukoners to not only celebrate the culture and history of Asian people, but also to recognize the contributions that Asian people have made and continue to make in our communities.

The newly published Inventory of the History of Asian Yukoners by Margaret (Peggy) D’Orsay for the Hidden Histories Society Yukon provides hundreds of sources of information. There are references from archives and libraries in the Yukon and elsewhere about the businesses established by Asians, their individual and family triumphs and tragedies, and their community life in Dawson, Mayo, Carcross, Haines Junction and Whitehorse. There are references about the men and women who played a part in the development of the social, cultural, economic and political life of their communities from the late 1800s to 2017.

These stories of Asian Yukoners include that of Togo Takamatsu of Japan, who moved to Carcross in 1920, and Yoshikazu Tsukamoto, a Japanese-Canadian who went to Haines Junction in 1954 as the first northern agricultural research scientist. Socorro (Cory) Alfonso arrived in 1986 from the Philippines to work as a nanny for many Whitehorse families. These stories were highlighted in portable exhibits on display at the Asian Heritage Month events held at the beginning of May.

On May 5, an afternoon event held at the Old Fire Hall featured cultural activities, displays, demonstrations and mini-workshops from Tai Chi Yukon, the Canadian Filipino Association of Yukon, the Whitehorse Japanese Tea Group and bookbinding with solstice haiku group.

A Yukon cultural event would not be complete without food. The Language School of the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon offered for sale butadon (pork rice bowl), Japanese-style vegetable curry and miso soup. The Whitehorse Japanese Tea Group offered melt-in-your-mouth matcha green tea cookies in beautifully decorated glass jars. All of the fundraising goes to support the group’s activities.

Michael Abe, a Japanese-Canadian ink brush painting (sumi-e) and calligraphy artist from Victoria provided an engaging demonstration and talk. Via live video feed, attendees we were able to view the delicate ink brush strokes and techniques he uses to achieve the various gradations of grey to black ink as he paints.

Katherine Munro (kjmunro) presents haiku with displays of Asian Yukoners in background

Katherine Munro, writing under the name kjmunro, is a Whitehorse haiku poet. She provided an introductory talk about haiku and explained some of the differences between English and Japanese haiku. Katherine read from her newly released book, contractions. She facilitates solstice haiku, a Whitehorse group interested in writing and learning about haiku.

Katherine is the winner of the 2019 Very Small Verse contest from the League of Canadian Poets. Following is her winning haiku poem:

low winter sun
the mist
from a mandarin

A Deeper Look

For many Yukoners, cultural events and food provide the initial introduction to Asian culture. For me, these provide memories of some of the smells, tastes and images of my years growing up on the prairies in Regina. For my parents, it was such a far cry from Vancouver, their initial entry point into Canada from Japan in the late 1930s.

For me, Asian Heritage Month goes deeper into the family stories. It is about the hidden histories of not only my own family, but of many Asian people. They are stories of people who were looking for new opportunities to make a living, who despite many hardships, managed to build up resources, to develop businesses, perhaps to rebuild their lives in new locations and to provide a solid base for their children’s future.

Michael Abe demonstrates the art of Japanese ink brush painting (sumi-e)

Michael Abe is not only an accomplished artist, but is also the project manager for the Landscapes of Injustice research project at the University of Victoria. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, along with project partners, funded this seven-year project.

Abe explained that in the first four years, the project focused its research on the dispossession of Japanese Canadian properties during the 1940s. It built upon the significant work of the Japanese Canadian communities to uncover and increase awareness of their history. Abe demonstrated the kinds of documentation available and how the project staff use archival records to locate case files of local Japanese Canadians, records of their B.C. properties and forced removal from the B.C. coast. Abe was able to assist one Japanese Canadian attending the session to gather some information about their family.

I recall how emotional it was to receive my father’s case files from Archives Canada when I requested them a couple of years ago. These included copies of letters written by officials that I had never seen before. Because my father had limited English, people wrote some of those letters to government officials on his behalf.

The project has now moved into the public education and mobilization phase. It is working with teachers, curators, archivists and web developers to share findings and insights gathered over the last three years.

Yukon educators have access to materials for teaching 10 year olds about “fairness” with the Landscapes of Injustice project

Importance for education today
This project is not just about the experiences of the Japanese Canadian community. It also provides an opportunity to explore how these messages are relevant today.
Curriculum materials have been developed and piloted in B.C. and Ontario schools.

Abe showed video clips of students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, speaking about “fairness” and applying principles of critical thinking and the application to today’s issues. Abe explained that selected teachers have the opportunity to attend a field school in July and to learn about and experience the hands-on curriculum developed by teachers. For more information on Landscapes of Injustice check out the website: LandscapesOfInjustice.com.

Work continues

Like many non-profit, volunteer organizations, the Hidden Histories Society (HHSY) relies upon many funding sources and donations for events, research, displays and public education. All of the Asian history exhibits produced by HHSY were made possible through the Community Development Fund, Government of Yukon, Yukon Archives and other partners. The publication release and the events for Asian Heritage Month received funding support from the Yukon Historic Resources Fund, Government of Yukon, Holland America Line and the Canadian Filipino Association of Yukon. The Landscapes of Injustice Project at the University of Victoria and the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon provided in-kind support for the Asian History Month events.

The Hidden Histories Society Yukon has recently received approval for Canadian Heritage funding to continue some Asian Heritage Month activities into the fall and winter 2019/20. Watch for further developments. Contact HHSY at info@hhsy.org.