Canada likes to present itself to the world in a certain way. The image of Canada is often that of an open, tolerant, society; one that anyone can come to and thrive in, just as long as they work hard. One thing that we have learned over the course of the “Right to Remain” project is that this image of Canada is largely a work of fiction. This is not just based on my personal experiences, but what we’ve gathered after hearing and sharing the stories of the hard realities of the people in the Downtown Eastside. The question now is, “How do we make the image of a tolerant Canada a reality?”
We have already taken a first step; we have shared some of the hidden history of Canada. When acts of violence are brought upon people because of their ethnic background it is usually treated as a one-off incident. The brutal suppression of Indigenous rights is treated as a thing of the past. As we speak there are people in Unist’ot’en who may face serious jail time for defending land that neither they nor their ancestors gave up or sold. Similarly, the old days of conjuring up the ‘’Yellow Menace’’ is said to be an embarrassing thing of the past. But as I write this, the housing crisis in BC is blamed on some vague kind of Chinese foreigner. The simple fact of the matter is that the Right to Remain is constantly being challenged. The methods are less brutal and not so out in the open than in the past. Does that make these acts of violence any less hurtful? We have to share our stories in order to learn from the past and look out for warning signs that our “Right to Remain” will be challenged next.
One may ask, “What is the right to remain?” People might say that nobody has the right to remain, that it’s a “silly idea.” They may believe that no group of people should get special treatment. But I argue that the right to remain has a long history. That some groups of Canadians have had special treatment, based on their wealth, the colour of their skin, the God they worship, or their gender, or some combination of these. The “Savage” was made up in order to keep Canada “Civilized.” The ‘’Yellow Menace’’ was made up in order to keep Canada (mostly and often) “White.” The list goes on. It seems that the image of Canada only includes people who can successfully assimilate into whatever these “special” Canadians decides is tolerable.
I’ll let you in on one last secret. Politicians don’t make change, people do, and politicians make policy after change has been made.
So all we need to do to change the image of Canada into an open and tolerant reality is to be the change we want. Eventually the politics should follow.
What is Revitalizing ‘Japantown’?
The Right to Remain is a project that has been taking place in the DTES since 2012, and is a vision of urban social justice for any city marked by racism, colonialism, and the convenient ‘forgetting’ of the dominant society. The name came out of the “Revitalizing ‘Japantown’?” community research partnership between eight DTES and Japanese Canadian organizations, local artists and activists, and university workers, that seeks to build alliances across the community among groups who share a common goal to protect, promote, and celebrate human rights in the neighbourhood. In March 2015, the first Right to Remain exhibit was held at Gallery Gachet. This phase of the project wraps up this winter with an exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby (Oct. 24, 2015 – Jan. 31, 2016). Please join us for the opening! More info at www.revitalizingjapantown.ca and centre.nikkeiplace.org/revitalizing-japantown.