Downtown Eastside activist Jamie Lee Hamilton cherishes the historic connections between Japanese Canadians and First Nations people.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, the veteran sex-workers advocate described how her aboriginal mother worked at the cannery at the foot of Commissioner Street. Hamilton’s mom belonged to the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, which included many members of Japanese descent.
“I have this great old photograph,” Hamilton said. “It’s a big one taken at the original Fish Hall on Cordova Street, where the Salvation Army is now. It’s full of Japanese women and the First Nations women—and men. There was that camaraderie in the fish canneries.”
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Canadians living along the B.C. coast had their assets seized and were forced to live in prison camps in the Interior for the duration of the Second World War. Hamilton said this didn’t sever the connection between Japanese Canadians and First Nations.
“There are very close ties,” Hamilton said. “Of course, when the Japanese Canadians had their properties taken away from them—their fishing boats—creating such hardship, the First Nations understood that because of having their land taken.”
Although Japanese Canadians had a strong prewar presence in Steveston, the centre of the community was in Japantown along Powell Street in the Downtown Eastside. Oppenheimer Park was home to the legendary Vancouver Asahi baseball team, which won many championships. It disbanded as a result of the internment.
In the 2013 book Spark: The Inspiring Life and Legacy of Milton K. Wong, the deceased businessman and philanthropist commented on the long-term effects of the internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians. Wong, who grew up in nearby Chinatown, suggested that this event drained the community’s energy, setting the stage for the long-term decline of the Downtown Eastside.
Despite the magnitude of the losses, Hamilton said that after the war, Japanese Canadians still opened their hearts to poor people in the neighbourhood. “We get to have political meetings at the Japanese Hall,” she said. “The Sisters of Atonement originally had all the Japanese Canadian nuns. They always served the bread line to the poor people in the Downtown Eastside. All my friends lived in the area, my school friends, they went to Japanese school at the Japanese Hall.”
In recent years, Hamilton has witnessed how cooks at the annual Powell Street Festival have fed poor people in the neighbourhood even when they had no money to pay.
“The Powell Street Festival is not just a party,” Hamilton declared. “It’s rooted in history. It’s Vancouver history and that just can’t be whitewashed… The Japanese Canadian community has always been allies to the homeless population and also to addressing homelessness.”
That’s why Hamilton is saddened to see that the Powell Street Festival, which celebrates Japanese Canadian art and culture, has moved out of Oppenheimer Park in response to a tent city on the grounds. The spokesperson for the protest, Brody Williams, told the Straight that campers won’t leave until Mayor Gregor Robertson keeps a 2008 campaign promise to end homelessness.
The festival has traditionally used the entire park, with food stands extending onto Jackson Avenue, but that won’t occur this year. On July 24, the society that puts on the festival issued a statement acknowledging that the park is on unceded Coast Salish territory. For this reason, the society “does not support the removal order or the threat of removal of residents in the park in any way”.
As a result, the 38th annual Powell Street Festival will cover four city blocks along Jackson Avenue from Cordova Streeet to Railway Street, and along Alexander Street between Dunlevy and Princess avenues. The Diamond Stage will be on Alexander Street east of Dunlevy Avenue, which is in historic Japantown. It takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from Friday (August 1) to Sunday (August 3).
It’s not the first time the festival has relocated. But it still troubles Hamilton because colleagues in her political party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, have supported the homeless protest and don’t see a problem with the Powell Street Festival having to abandon Oppenheimer Park to accommodate the tent city.
“Why would that issue trump another community’s history of welcoming everyone to celebrate together as allies, as communities in solidarity, as friends?” Hamilton asked.
She added that she feels far more comfortable attending the Powell Street Festival than the “corporate Pride” parade, even though she participated in the city’s first Pride march in 1979.
“To me, the Japanese festival is really grounded in community,” Hamilton said.