Breaking the cycle of discrimination one narrative at a time

December 10, 2020

By Laurie Wood

There are many messages telling Canadians that we need to end discrimination. Messages from the Black Lives Matter Movement is a recent example. An earlier example is the 1988 Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. And while you may not discriminate consciously, you probably do discriminate unconsciously.

If you are wondering what you can personally do to break the cycle, listening to those who have experienced discrimination is an excellent place to start. The Broken Promises travelling exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby has seven narratives you don’t want to miss.

Broken Promises is part of Landscapes of Injustice (LOI), a research project based at the University of Victoria that is a collaboration between SFU and other university, museum and government partners. It documents the mass displacement and dispossession of 22,000 Japanese Canadians in the 1940s. SFU students and faculty contributed to many facets of the LOI project, including the compelling narratives that make up the Broken Promises exhibit.

Trevor Wideman, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, was a PhD geography student in the Faculty of Environment when he first started working on the LOI project. Cataloging and archiving information from different project clusters informed much of his PhD research and gave him extensive experience in historical methods. But it wasn’t until he joined the Broken Promises museum exhibit cluster that the power of the personal stories became evident. Two of the characters documented in his earlier work became part of the exhibit and when Wideman saw their family photographs and read their letters requesting information, assistance and justice, he experienced a different level of understanding.

When asked what stood out the most for him, Wideman says, “the extent of the dispossession is staggering and shocking.”

While the 1980s redress movement made a strong case to the government by showing monetary loss in concrete ways, Wideman says hearing how dispossession has non-monetary impacts strikes an emotional chord that shocks, infuriates and breaks your heart.

The loss of property and possessions wasn’t just about losing real estate, it was about losing family heirlooms and history, treasured books, family connections and financial means.

“The other shocking thing was the banality of the process,” adds Wideman.

There was overt racism and discrimination involved that was easy to identify with individual actions but more subtle and equally unjust discrimination was embedded in the bureaucracy, which ultimately became socially acceptable, and delivered the greatest damage. It became the mechanism to ignore the pleas for help, and absolve responsibility. People were “just doing their jobs”.

The exhibit features compelling virtual and in-person elements. The powerful stories make visible the often-invisible elements of discrimination. Most importantly, they reunite the human element with processes that dehumanized discriminatory practices.

Wideman is now a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Toronto and “hopes that visitors get a sense of the resiliency of the community, and that that resilience continues into the present.”

Let’s also hope that by listening to the narratives we learn how to act in ways that break cycles of discrimination.

Learn more about the exhibit at Lansacpes of Injustice.