WWII violence and racism still exist

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The following was read by the writer, Aina Yasué, at the Hiroshima Day event on Aug. 6.

By AINA YASUÉ

I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Coast Salish Hul’qumi’num and SENCOTEN-speaking peoples.

My first encounter with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I remember is seeing a black-and-white photograph of the mushroom cloud.

It was a snapshot in time, and it was put away. As it was being put away, the horrors I associated with this event also slipped from view, I was relieved, and “moved on.”

I share this moment because I’m interested in how such acts of violence and dehumanization can be presented and commemorated as objects or artefacts, separated from the idea of us, here, now, to them, over there, long ago. This rings true with my experience of seeing the mushroom cloud photo, locating the event away from my life. So until I started my undergrad studies I would have been surprised to hear that Canada was involved in supplying uranium to construct the very nuclear bomb that decimated so many bodies, or that not only Japanese peoples suffered from the disastrous effects of this single event.

I did not know that in 1941 the Canadian government bought a mine just outside of Yellowknife and hired men from the Dené Nation to transport the uranium ore to the refining facility. The majority of men died of cancer in the years following, resulting in the naming of the community as the Village of Widows.

The harm of the explosion also spilled across borders and nationalities, as the 200,000-plus deaths included Korean people and American prisoners of war. Further, before the attacks, many soldiers and local residents died due to their proximity to the test sites in Nevada, New Mexico and the Marshall Islands.

We might feel that these events are in the past, but even today numerous nuclear test sites remain globally and nuclear power remains a major source of energy that we rely on for the products that we buy. In a globalized world we cannot sit back and view these events as separate both in time and space from our lives today. Viewing it as separate allows us the unearned gift of feeling that we don’t have a responsibility to change our own lives.

To justify an event as horrific as a nuclear bombing, the victims must be seen as less human or less important. One way dehumanization of people continues is through our everyday conversations and actions. This means that we, in our everyday lives, can resist or support the continuous violence that is occurring here and around the world. So I want to ask, how do we on Salt Spring create a culture that dehumanizes, devalues the other? How do we — as in all of us — participate?

Even here, frequently when I tell white people that I’ve lived here for 20 years, they show obvious signs of surprise and confusion. In their minds Canada is a white country, because histories of non-white presence is not taught, or not talked about. And if it is, it is a side-note, and does not take centre-stage. Not only the Indigenous histories but also the other people of colour who have settled here. Yet, if you look at a Salt Spring class photo from 1929,  most of the children are children of colour. Many of them are Japanese-Canadians whose land were taken as part of Japanese internment.

I can’t help but wonder what happened to all the people of colour? The Indigenous peoples? Forced displacement answers part of the question and I can guess other causes based on other Indigenous histories, but I am still uncovering what I never learned in the public education system. As a woman of colour, I can also guess the exclusion they may have felt. Just a few summers ago, on the island, when I worked as a server at an exclusive restaurant with an entirely white staff, the manager suggested that I didn’t quite “fit,” irrespective of my work ethic. Perhaps as a business that profits from an idyllic get-away image, my presence destroys the visitor’s illusion of a nostalgic and romantic white haven.

Salt Spring praises itself (on their official tourism site) as an island that “has always been a place of refuge, restoration, adventure and creativity,” perhaps a place to get away from the “real world” complicated by race, power and war.

Therefore, when anthropology scholar and author Michael Lambek states “to remember is never solely to report on the past so much as to establish one’s relationship toward it,” I want to establish my relationship to the bombing of Hiroshima in conversation to the present, and how it spills over time, borders and culture. I want to resist the thought that I can simply put away the picture of the mushroom cloud when I am done feeling uncomfortable. I want to remember the violence as a continuous event, alive in the present.

So as you walk away from this event I urge you all to think of a call to action. Bring to light erased histories of Salt Spring, stop the ongoing displacement of BIPOC, and intervene in conversations that centre whiteness or romanticize the notion of a white community in which only some of us belong. There is so much we can do.

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