About the Collection
This digital exhibit features photographs and letters from the Joan Gillis fonds, housed at UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC). The content that is made available through this exhibit has been done so with the permission of the families of the correspondents. Original letters are available for access through RBSC. Visit the RBSC’s Visiting page for additional information.
This digital exhibit was developed as a professional experience project for Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of British Columbia Library, located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking Musqueam people. In these virtual times, we also wish to acknowledge that it was also in part developed virtually from the lands of the Tamyen and Ramaytush Ohlone (Mountain View, CA, USA).
Sugar beet farming has historically taken advantage of not only forcibly uprooted Japanese Canadians; it has also been an industry that has exploited the labour of Indigenous peoples1. In addition to acknowledging the settler nature of the exhibit and its developers, we also wish to acknowledge the territories on which the correspondents lived during their forced dispersal and the Nations it traditionally belongs to.
Dryden, Ontario is on the traditional territories of the Michif Piyii (Métis) and Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ Nations in the Treaty 3 region.
Headingley and Lorette, Manitoba are on the traditional territories of the Michif Piyii (Métis), Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Nations in the Treaty 1 region.
Magrath, Rainier, and Raymond, Alberta are on the traditional territories of the Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi ᖹᐟᒧᐧᒣᑯ), Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis, Tsuu T’ina, Michif Piyii (Métis), and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Nations in the Treaty 7 region.
Rocky Mountain House, Alberta is on the traditional territories of the Métis, Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi ᖹᐟᒧᐧᒣᑯ), Tsuu T’ina, and Cree Nations in the Treaty 6 region.
|Exhibit Term||Description||Related Terms|
|Forced dispersal||The forced removal of Japanese Canadians from their homes and businesses, primarily in British Columbia, and subsequent incarceration in internment and labour camps, employment on sugar beet farms, or exile to Japan during the 1940s.||Forced uprooting; Forced removal; Internment; Incarceration|
|Nikkei||Anyone with one or more ancestors from Japan, and/or anyone who self-identifies as nikkei 1||Nisei (Second generation Japanese Canadian)|
|Sugar beet farms||The government rhetoric around sugar beet farms often depicted them as "projects" that Japanese Canadians willingly volunteered for. In reality, this was the only alternative to labour camps for families that did not want to be split up, and who had enough members eligible to perform farm work.|
|Farm owners||The farmers and owners of the fields where Japanese Canadians laboured to harvest sugar beets. Most of the correspondents refer to these individuals simply as "boss," or simply use their title and surname throughout the letters.|
|Restricted Zone||A 160-kilometre strip along the west coast of British Columbia from which Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed and forbidden from re-entering as of March 1942.||Protected Zone|
1. Definition from the Xi Copani Eleventh Pan-American Nikkei Conference 2001, as seen in: Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre. (2019). Nikkei 日系 Exhibit Brief: July 2019-2020. https://centre.nikkeiplace.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Nikkei-exhibit-brochure_E.pdf
Note on the Nature of Letters and Archives
We would be remiss not to address the fact that, through this exhibit, we are only able to see one side of the story. While Joan was in a secure place such that she was able to hold on to the letters written to her, it is unknown to the curators of this exhibit whether any of her letters to her forcibly removed friends were able to be retained. Even if they were, the fact of the matter is that they are not in the hands of this institution at this point in time. This, inherently, adds a sense of loss to our understanding of the relationships the letters hold within them. We are only seeing one half of the story. There were many instances during the course of the curation of this exhibit during which we found ourselves thinking, “But what did she write?” It’s a question without an answer. Joan plays an incredibly important role in the existence of this collection, and yet none of her own writing is available for us to explore.
The fact that these are personal letters now being put on display, in dialogue with one another but not in the context of their initial correspondence inherently limits the picture that we can paint. It also surfaces issues of framing and consent. While we have received permission from the families of the letter writers to include their writing in our exhibit, there is no way for us to go back in time and inform the writer as they were writing that someday, the words that they wrote would be available for the world to see. We are making public personal thoughts sent in confidence – or as much confidence as one can have while knowing that a censor was always your letter’s first recipient.
In addition to the wartime censor’s looming presence, so too do we see in these letters a self-censorship that emerges as a result of the imbalance between the life circumstances of the author and recipient. While yearning to remain close to Joan, it is highly likely that the authors of these letters did not wish to burden her with the true weight of their experiences. So, too, are we as readers of these letters saved from the harshest experiences these writers may have had to endure. It is only through conjecture and historical context that we can identify how what was written offered protection through omission as a kindness.
Joan’s presence looms large in our experience of these letters and her existence as a white teen cannot be ignored. It is, quite plainly, what made the dynamics of these writing relationships possible. At that time in Canada’s history, news from home could have never come from a Japanese Canadian friend.
We wish to acknowledge that these letters are incredibly valuable in that they enable us to gain a glimpse into the lives of their ’ authors, but that our historical gain is not free of problematicity. We hold conflicting feelings about how these letters came to be material for our exhibit, not due to any misbehavior but rather as a result of the nature of archives, and encourage you to consider these implications as you experience the exhibit.
About the Curators and Notes on Positionality
Mya is a Chinese settler who was adopted from China and raised by her German—Jewish American mother on the unceded territories of the Tamyen and Ramaytush Ohlone peoples, surrounded by stories at the borders of internment and concentration camps. Her grandparents both came to Turtle Island to escape the horrors of Nazi Germany, never being interned themselves, but haunted by the stories of family members who had been, some of whom were murdered. Mya’s maternal great-grandfather, during the course of his family’s escape from Germany, was briefly interned on the Isle of Man in the UK, labeled—not unlike the Japanese Canadians in this exhibit and the Jewish refugees who came to Canada during World War II—as an “enemy alien” not because of his actions, but because of his German origins. Mya is grateful for the opportunity that this exhibit has provided to consider these personal family origins and the notion that marginalized communities, regardless of origin, can be similarly persecuted by the combination of xenophobia and lack of agency. She hopes that the work being done here gives voice to those who experienced these injustices first-hand and invites learning and reflection by viewers.
Sasha Gaylie (she/her) is a queer and mixed-race, second-generation Chinese settler born and raised on the traditional and unceded lands of the sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsawwassen), Stó:lō, Stz’uminus, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples. Though the period of forced dispersal predates the immigration of Sasha’s family to Canada, it has been humbling to learn about the ways that the Chinese Canadian community was complicit in the displacement of Japanese Canadians through research for this exhibit. One example is the decision to wear badges stating “I am Chinese” to deflect persecution from law enforcement and redirect it back towards the Japanese Canadian community. In the wake of rising reports of anti-Asian racism in recent years, this has been a sobering reminder of how white supremacy and xenophobia can manifest in acts of lateral racism. As with Mya, Sasha hopes that highlighting the voices in this exhibit—youth narratives of loss and injustice, and resilience in the face of it—will bring about a better awareness of the harms inflicted by the Canadian government and help us imagine the forms solidarity can take.
We are very grateful for the guidance and expertise of Krisztina Laszlo (RBSC Archivist), Tomoko Kitayama Yen (Japanese Studies Librarian), Chelsea Shriver (RBSC Librarian), and Eka Grguric (Digital Scholarship Librarian) for their help with the design and implementation of the exhibit. We additionally wish to thank Laura Ishiguro (Associate Professor in the UBC Department of History) as well as Lisa Uyeda (Collections Manager) and Linda Kawamoto Reid (Research Archivist) at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre for their consultations and assistance.
Lastly, this exhibit would not be possible without the existence of these letters, their donation to the RBSC, and the support and approval of the families of correspondents. Though she is no longer with us, we are grateful to Joan Gillis for her kindness and care for her friends, her preservation of their letters, and her donation of them to the University. We are grateful to the correspondents for their candor and to their families for their permission to include their words and experiences in our exhibit.
Technical Credits - CollectionBuilder
This digital collection is built with CollectionBuilder, an open source tool for creating digital collection and exhibit websites that is developed by faculty librarians at the University of Idaho Library following the Lib-STATIC methodology.