Guardians of the past

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McGill Reporter
April 13, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 15
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Guardians of the past

McGill inherits treasure trove of historical data

As on most Thursdays, Jackie Stevens, Alice Kudo and Donnie Shimotakahara are tucked away in a solitary room at the McGill Centre for Developing Area Studies, sifting through old photographs, newspaper clippings and assorted biographical files. Shimotakahara picks up an 8x10 black and white photo of a young girl and shakes her head. "I don't know who she is, but you can tell she's in a camp."

While for most Canadians, the word "camp" may conjure images of canoe trips and roasting marshmallows, for these women it stirs up more painful memories. All three spent significant portions of their childhood in internment camps. Their only crime: being Japanese-Canadian during World War II. As paranoia and prejudice ran rampant, some 22,000 people had their property seized, were interned and, at war's end, were forced to leave British Columbia and resettle farther and farther eastward across the country as cities filled their quotas of Japanese-Canadians.

Today, the trio is working with McGill Senior Archivist Gordon Burr and Sarah Jensen, a practicum student in the Graduate School of Library Information Studies, to help archive 20,000-odd documents, photographs and tape recordings collected over the past 60 years by the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre of Montreal (JCCCM).

Last year, history professor John Zucchi got wind that this collection was being housed in an upper duplex in NDG and that the JCCCM was hoping to move the material to a safer and more permanent home. When McGill offered proper storage space and professional archiving, the JCCCM donated the historical treasure trove and volunteered to help with the processing of documents.

"A lot of archivists would be skittish about working in conjunction with volunteers - especially ones who had run the archives before. But we're not," says Burr. "This has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me."

It is clear that the trio offer insights into Canadian history far richer than can be found in a box. As they work, their firsthand recollections bring to life an ordeal barely mentioned in many Canadian history books, and the horror of which they often defuse with a healthy dose of gallows humour.

Stevens talks about how her father was incarcerated in a POW camp alongside captured Nazi officers simply because he was declared a "subversive alien" for protesting the Canadian government's plan to separate men from their families during internment. He and the other protesters were issued standard POW uniforms, complete with a large red circle on the back. "One man said 'Look, they are recognizing Japan,'" recalls Stevens with a chuckle. "But then someone else pointed out that they looked just like big targets to the guys manning the machine gun turrets."

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