Friday 31 July 2015

Of Africa: "Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity" by Karin Jones

It has been some time since I have last posted here, but I can assure you that I have been hard at work studying, reading, etc. So I hope that this will only benefit and enhance future posts, and I want to thank you for your patience these past several months :)

Recently, the city of Toronto has become a multiculturalism enthusiast's dream with the hosting of the Pan Am Games in July. We have had many tourists from abroad (some of whom I have had the pleasure of interacting with at the Royal Ontario Museum), and there are many ethnic and cultural events scattered around the city for the public to take part in.

Of course, celebrations of ethnic identity are not straightforward: along with the pleasure, there is often pain. We can say we appreciate others' cultures all we want, but with that, we also have to hear people out on the issues and challenges they face, oftentimes because of those identities.

Because of this, I find it interesting that after several months' worth of hiatus, I return to my volunteer post at the Royal Ontario Museum to a number of new exhibits and installations in the Canadian galleries where I work. One of these, Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity by Vancouver-based artist Karin Jones, is particularly noteworthy for the ROM initiative it is part of: Of Africa.

Of Africa is a ROM project several years in the making, aimed towards presenting a more diverse image of Africa and its diaspora, dispelling the myth that the African continent is culturally monolithic (i.e. that all Africans can be grouped into a single culture). Also, the use of contemporary modern art will also showcase the vitality of African cultures: they are not trapped in some distant past, but incredibly vibrant and open to creative expression and innovation.

Worn, appearing as it does in the Canadian gallery, is meant to speak about the historical and contemporary reality of African Canadians, working in juxtaposition to the artifacts from European settlement that surround the temporary exhibition space in the rest of the gallery. The art installation is a dress made of synthetic hair in a style evoking the late 19th century bustle dress associated with the Victorian era. In the following pictures, you can see the intricate detailing of the braided hair. In this, we see Jones' argument that African arts (as exemplified through the braiding) are just as beautiful and refined as the European decorative and fashion arts that our society so admires.

You may note that the dress is black. This is not only because of the colour of the synthetic hair, reminiscent of African and Caribbean braids, but because the Victorian dress Jones meant to emulate was a mourning dress. In her own words:

For me, the Victorian mourning dress is a symbol of sadness, "high" culture, the British Empire, and the imposition of feminine beauty norms.


I wear my African-Canadian identity much as a Victorian woman would have worn this type of dress: proudly, but uncomfortably, shaped and also constrained by it.

Note as well the way the dress is displayed. Cotton balls and hair bolls are scattered upon the floor, testament to the role that Africans have played in the construction of the European empires and the settler colonies that now form today's First World - including Canada.

Canadians may speak of the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railroad that allowed African slaves in the United States to find freedom, but we also cannot forget that we, too, have benefited from the "invisible labour of thousands of Africans": not just in the 19th century at the height of the British Empire, but also into the present day.


Of Africa. Royal Ontario Museum. n.d. Web. 31 July 2015.

Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity. Royal Ontario Museum. n.d. Web. 31 July 2015.

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru

Monday 12 January 2015

"Je Me Souviens" But Not Enough: Finding History in Vieux-Québec

 Je me souviens.

"I remember." That's the motto for the province of Quebec, and something that resonates in the hearts and minds of Canadians everywhere. Rightly or wrongly so, Quebec and its people have a strong association with the country's history; they are the proverbial guardians of Canada's French heritage. And whether you see it as a good thing (as a rallying cry to maintain history and culture) or a bad thing (as a means to hold on to old grudges from centuries past), there is no denying that something is being remembered in Quebec City, at all times.

So when I had the chance to finally visit Quebec City in October 2014 for a family vacation, I was very excited. This was something I had been wanting to do for a very long time. Sure, I had been to Quebec numerous times in the past, growing up - but the last time was over ten years ago, back when I had little respect or appreciation for Canada and its history.

This time, especially with a secret desire to glean some firsthand knowledge for historical fiction-writing purposes, would be different. This time, I thought, I would be inspired.

Just a small bonus: This is the hotel that I stayed at on one of my earlier childhood trips to Quebec. It's right on the edge of the Plains of Abraham.
In the past, I have had some very fruitful "research trips," as I like to call these excursions. I'd been to Boston and London, and while neither was a fully immersive experience, I came home with a deeper sense of the history and culture of these places and the significance they had to the people who lived there. In Boston, walking the Freedom Trail, I could see the birthplace of the American Revolution; meanwhile, in London, I felt myself transported to a different world.

Quebec, for me, was going to be the mother lode. What else could it be? This was where I wanted my stories to be set. I was a history enthusiast with a mission: to show the world that Canada was - and still is - important. That even two hundred years ago, we were something, and all one had to do was go to Quebec, the pinnacle of Canadian historical preservation, to see it.

For the most part, I wasn't disappointed. There is, in Vieux-Québec (i.e. the Old City of Quebec), a certain quaintness that I could easily envision working in the 18th century. There were old houses (some dating to the 18th century or even earlier - a rare sight, given the British bombardment of 1759), cobblestone streets, and the same narrow alleys and steep pathways that the city's past inhabitants navigated on a daily basis.

One of the several routes connecting the Upper Town and Lower Town. And yes, it is as steep as it looks. That doesn't deter locals, though: I saw a whole group of schoolchildren running down the sidewalk after their classes let out for the day.

Part of the foundations from some of Québec's historic buildings.
Not only that, but if I was willing to look closely, there were some very overt nods to a time gone by. For instance, in the Upper Town, I stumbled across one of Vieux-Québéc's odder landmarks.

This, mes amis, is a cannonball stuck in the roots of a tree in an otherwise unspectacular alleyway. There are two different stories as to how it got there: one is that it was a cannonball left from the British bombardment of Québec during the Siege of 1759 around which the tree grew; the other is that the ball was deliberately placed there when the tree was younger and smaller to discourage vehicular traffic from running over the roots. Both versions of the story are equally plausible - although I am rather romantically inclined to go with the first. After all, that was what I was in Quebec for: to discover some hint of what life was like in the 18th century. And finding an authentic cannonball from the period would certainly help there.

I also discovered, not surprisingly, that Canada and its government could have a rather biting sense of humour and irony. For evidence of this, I present to you the Duke of Kent House.

This building now houses the French Consulate in the city of Québec. And while it has certainly been expanded from its original 18th century size, this was also the place where the French signed the capitulation documents in September 1759, formally surrendering Québec to the British. Perhaps no offhanded jab was intended in the Duke of Kent House being adopted by the French Consulate, but given that many Québécois still bear resentment towards France for giving them up all those years ago...I can't help but wonder if there was. Either way, this simply could not be coincidence, in my mind, and would be a worthwhile avenue to explore.

All this being said, given my interest in Quebec during the Seven Years' War - and the 1759 campaign in particular - it's only fair that I really go to the mother ship itself: the Plains of Abraham. Now called Battlefields Park, this area just outside of the city walls has been preserved and is open to the public, serving as a site for many events great and small throughout the year.

Sculptures of Generals Wolfe and Montcalm - the British and French commanders respectively during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham - on the façade of Québec's parliament building. These were two out of many such sculptures depicting famous figures from the province's history.
This was not my first visit to the Plains of Abraham. Like many other Canadian schoolchildren, I came here on a trip with my classmates, and took part in a rather half-hearted re-enactment of the battle. So I was definitely looking forward to returning here to get a renewed look at the place.

And this was when my dream veered sharply off course.

I've been on a historic battlefield before: Bunker Hill in Boston. There, I remember being able to stand on top of the hill, look down towards the harbour, and have the whole battle just mentally "click" into place. I could envision the British assault, the colonial defence...the actual hushed solemnity that one associates with a site of bloodshed.

Surely, given my passion for the subject and my strong sense of mission re: Canadian history, this would be almost like a sacred site for me. If I could bring myself to feel for a battle fought on foreign soil - and feel sympathy for the side I was raised to revile - then doubtless I would feel that again here. At home. And many times more.

Instead, I felt nothing.

I can't explain it. Even now, a few months later, I still can't put into words what came over me. When I stepped out from the city walls to look at the Plains, all I saw was a public park. No more, no less.

I tried to feel more than that. Really, I did. I started walking slowly and determinedly along the edge of the park, staring intently into it, earning strange looks and prodding questions from the others in my party. "Do you want to go down into the park?" they asked. I wanted to. But the slope going down into the field was steep, it was about to rain, and I knew that in everyone else's eyes, this really was just a park. So instead, I kept walking and staring, caught up in my own existential crisis on the Plains of Abraham.

What sort of a Canadian history buff would I be if I couldn't bring myself to feel? What sort of a Canadian would I be, altogether, if I could feel more for an American battlefield than my own?

I will say, however, that I found myself inexplicably drawn to this copse of trees. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered it from that school re-enactment all those years ago.
I still don't know why I was unable to feel the same sense of transportation into the past that I did at Bunker Hill. Perhaps I was choked by my own expectations - feelings, after all, could not be forced, and if there was one thing I knew, it was that I was forcing them. Perhaps I felt that the site I saw simply could not be what I had had in my imagination. Perhaps, on some subconscious level, I felt that the Plains had been changed, somewhere in the intervening two hundred and fifty years, into a tourist attraction: a place far removed from its bloody beginnings.

Whatever it was, all I know is this: in the moment when I ought to have felt it most, "Je me souviens" did not happen for me.


Fortunately for us, the story does not end here. I did find something to honour and remember in the end - just not what I expected. There was, near the Plains of Abraham, a war memorial dedicated to Canadians who had fought and died in the World Wars and the Korean War.

And there, I saw that it was not just past conflicts, but more recent ones, that Québec was remembering. At the base, I found a bouquet of flowers dedicated to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian who, just days earlier, had been killed in a terrorist attack in Ottawa.

Je me souviens, indeed.

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru

Monday 5 January 2015

A Canadian's Review of the Canada Pavilion in Disney World's World Showcase

It's that time of year again: Christmas has passed, and everyone is getting back into their old grind of school and work. I hope everyone here among my readers has had a safe and enjoyable holiday season - I know I have. And that's why I'm here: to talk about where I was.

Shouldn't take a genius to figure out where I was if I got photos like this!
From December 22 to 27, 2014, I was on a family vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. That's close to a week, and I still wasn't able to even scratch the surface of what the parks and resorts had to offer. However, I was able to, fortunately, check out my favourite part of the entire complex: the World Showcase in Epcot.

For those of you who aren't aware, the World Showcase is designed to feel like a one-stop-shop trip around the world. There are areas - called Pavilions - focusing on 11 different countries: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the USA, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada. Naturally, being a very patriotic Canuck myself, I made a point of paying particularly close attention to the Canadian one.

It should be very obvious that, with the sheer amount of possibilities inherent in every nation's culture, the representations in the World Showcase are kitschy at best, and downright stereotypical at worst. That still didn't detract from my enjoyment, though - not this time, nor the first time I went back in 2010.

So...what was it like for this Canadian to see how Disney chose to show my country to the world? Let's find out!

I ended up approaching the Canada Pavilion from the side of Epcot known as "Future World"; in other words, this was the first "country" I visited in the World Showcase. However, before I even got into the Pavilion proper, there were already clues that I was in "kitschy Canada":

See those? They were in a kiosk promoting the Disney Vacation Club, and the first thing I saw entering the World Showcase. If you think those look an awful lot of Northwest Coast First Nations art, you'd be correct. In fact, that was a running theme throughout the Canada Pavilion: just like any proper souvenir shop back home, you can't say "Canada" without some nod to our First Nations, particularly those from British Columbia. Take a look at some of these other examples - this time from the actual Pavilion:

First Nations totem pole and a Haida house as a storefront.

Not only does this give a good view of the wall artwork in the gift shop, but you can also see how the staff at the Canada Pavilion were dressed. The cashier is wearing a white shirt, a leather fringed vest, and a red plaid skirt. Guys word red flannel plaid "lumberjack" shirts.
Carving on the front door to the gift shop.
The shop that these photos is from is also worth mentioning. Oftentimes in the World Showcase, the stores for each "country" are connected internally: you walk through them as one cohesive unit, but there are various different storefronts on the outside all along the way. The one for the Canada Pavilion, for instance, was made up like an old fur trade post in one part, and a Haida house (see above) in another.

Inside these stores, there are many souvenirs that are meant to be reminiscent of the nation being represented (although, with the recent boom over Frozen, "Norway"'s shops seem to have lost some of that in favour of being Disney's latest place for more Arendelle-related merchandise). And the Canada Pavilion is no different. Here, I found more than my fair share of maple-related goods, hockey paraphernalia, etc.

Maple-flavoured goodies - Yum!
Winnipeg Jets gear for sale in the gift shop. There were shelves like this for all of Canada's NHL teams (the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets - shown here - Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, and Montreal Canadiens). This is my nod to Canada's newest :)
Also, because it was the Christmas season, the entire store was also decked out with holiday gear: wreaths, garlands, snowshoes....Yep, there were snowshoes worked into the garlands here.

Perhaps I really shouldn't be so sardonic about all of this. In all honesty, I really liked what Disney did in this Pavilion, and I get a good laugh out of it every single time. But, let's be honest: no Canadian I know works snowshoes into their Christmas decor. Then Again, "We Are Winter" (Team Canada slogan and all that), so I suppose it only makes sense that we'd be associated with ice and snow all the time.

Speaking of snow, nature in general is a huge running theme in the Canada Pavilion, at all times of year. And it makes me really proud to see my country being associated with such gorgeous (albeit man-made) vistas as this:

That, mes amis, is an artificial mountain formation that acts as a backdrop for the entire Canada Pavilion. It is absolutely stunning to see in person - and very easy to forget that it's all man-made. I am very, very glad that Disney decided to think of "wilderness" when they thought of "Canada", because that is something many Canadians, too, are proud of. Yes, the wilderness is tough, and winters are tough, and we gripe about them all the time. But, all the same, we Canucks won't have it any other way.

There is also a nod to one of Canada's most well-known man-made landscapes. Victoria Gardens, as this area is called in Epcot, is directly inspired by the very real (and very famous) Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.

Now, Canada is not just about the First Nations, hockey, and nature. There has also been a long history of European (predominantly French and English) settlement, and that is marked in some of the architecture here as well, inspired by buildings seen in Ottawa and Quebec.

Reminds me of the houses I saw in Quebec City
This building is inspired by the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa
So...are there any rides in the Canada Pavilion? No. However, there is, if you ask me, one heck of a good show: "O Canada". It's a Circle-vision movie, meaning that you stand in the centre of a room and images are projected on a screen that wraps all the way around you, and shows a lot of what Canada has to offer, narrated by one of our many comedians: Martin Short.

And, perhaps as a nod to how Canada's economy relies predominantly on its natural resources, the theatre is inside an old mine:

Just how good is this movie? Well, it can be a bit disappointing, after spending a long day walking, to discover that it's just standing-room only in the theatre. However, everyone in my family thought it was great, and that our country was certainly worth "standing on guard" for. (And, yes, that's a very lame attempt to work the actual "O Canada" into this!)

So what's my overall verdict? As a Canadian, I could see this pavilion for being the mishmash of stereotypes it is - more so than I could have for any other Pavilion in the World Showcase. However, I do commend Disney for choosing the particular set of stereotypes it did: these are all things that many Canadians, myself included, do feel proud about, and I, at least, am more than happy to use them as markers of our distinctiveness as a nation.


Just for the record: the question of "Where are you visiting from?" is a huge icebreaker while you're in Disney World. Everyone asks it of everyone else: characters during autograph sessions, other visitors whilst you're in line, the cashiers in the stores. Naturally, I joined in the fun, and had some great conversations this way. Here are my top picks for "I'm a Canadian!" moments at Disney.

1. Waiting in line for Winnie the Pooh's autograph in the United Kingdom Pavilion, I started chatting with the family in front of me in line. It turns out they're from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and were happy to have a fellow Canuck in their midst. As we waited, we remarked on the irony that Winnie the Pooh was considered a British character by Disney when Winnie, the actual bear that inspired the story, was Canadian and named for Winnipeg. Seriously - look it up. Granted, A. A. Milne was British, and he saw Winnie at the London Zoo, but, well, the Canada Pavilion has no character greetings, and the UK already has Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins - let us join in the fun, why don't you, Disney?

2. The first thing I did when I arrived at Disney World was buy an autograph book at the gift shop in my hotel (the All Star Sports Resort). Every single time I buy something in the States, I have to wrap my head around all the bills looking almost exactly the same. I told the cashier as such, and he asked me where I was from. I answered, "Toronto, Canada. I'm used to the technicolor money we have there." He thought that was funny, and it did break the ice a bit.

Speaking of "ice", here's a very famous Canadian whose photo was featured on a "Wall of Fame" in the hotel: Wayne Gretzky, NHL hockey player from the Edmonton Oilers (aka "The Great One").
3. Meeting Elsa from "Frozen" at the Magic Kingdom Park. Yes, I was one of those who got the coveted Fastpass+ to see her (book early, guys, or you'll be in line for HOURS). She asked me, while signing my book, where I was from, to which I answered that I was from Canada. She then said, "I've never been to the Kingdom of Canada before," and then said that she'd like to go because of all the ice and snow. Actually, both she and Anna remarked on how cold it must be there. I deigned from telling Elsa, however, about how Toronto quite literally froze over last winter; don't know how she would have reacted if I did.

Edit: I've been notified via e-mail by a reader that I accidentally left out the Ottawa Senators from my list of Canadian NHL hockey teams. That's been fixed, and I apologize - no offense was intended to the Sens or their fans.

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru

Monday 8 December 2014

The Kamloops Kid and Honda-San: Japanese Soldiers in Hong Kong

Earlier in this blog, I'd written about how the Canadians fighting in Hong Kong in WWII led to my reaching a greater awareness of Remembrance Day and its significance.

December 7, 1941, is a date that many of my readers would recognize: it was the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, officially launching the United States into WWII. However, this was not a singular attack. Pearl Harbor was part of a co-ordinated series of Japanese military assaults throughout the Pacific Theatre, including the British colony of Hong Kong. Due to time zone differences, the attack on Hong Kong is recorded as having started in the early hours of December 8, 1941; hard fighting for the colony ensued between the Japanese and the defenders (made up of British, Indian, Canadian and native soldiers, at least) until the surrender on December 25, 1941. The surviving Allied soldiers were held as Prisoners of War until the end of WWII in 1945, and the story of these POWs is what often comes to Canadians' minds when they think of Hong Kong at the time.

But my focus here is not on the Canadian soldiers just yet. With all these anniversaries coming around at this time of year, I feel that focusing too strongly on that can stir up old conflicts and resentments towards Japan and its people. Sounds far-fetched? Maybe. But I have seen and heard such comments in person in the past (including claims that Japan deserved the 2011 Tsunami due to the Imperial Japanese Army's actions in WWII) to know not to bring that up. Rather, I want to encourage you, my readers, to step back and look at the Japanese involved in this conflict as people. Who were they, and how did this affect their actions?

Fortunately, my examination of the Canadian role in Hong Kong during WWII has managed to unearth accounts of (at least) two very different cases: one that falls into the common image of Japanese atrocities, and one that completely contradicts it. Both men are still shrouded in mystery, but please allow me to share what I have found thus far.

Kanao Inouye: the "Kamloops Kid"

Kanao Inouye was commonly known as the "Kamloops Kid" due to his being, in fact, a second-generation Japanese-Canadian born in Kamloops, British Columbia. He appears in a number of Canadian POWs' accounts of their imprisonment as an interpreter with a sadistic streak. One interview recalls him giving a POW a severe beating for pointing out poor medical facilities in the camp to a Red Cross worker, while other accounts point at Inouye's taunts, prophesying a Japanese takeover of Canada, and threatening harm to the Canadian POWs' families in that event. After the war, he was identified by POWs in Hong Kong, and was ultimately tried and executed for treason.

Something like this would correlate with many accounts of Japanese atrocities committed during WWII. However, there is more to Kanao Inouye than initially meets the eye, and much of this depth lies upon his being a Canadian citizen at the time. Like the United States, Canada and its government took preemptive measures to prevent traitorous behaviour from its Japanese immigrant population by confining many of them to internment camps well away from the Pacific coast. This is a dark spot on Canadian history, as at the time, Japanese-Canadians had not shown any indication of disloyalty to Canada, and, like their American counterparts, often worked to actively show their loyalty to the Canadian government during this time. So the "Kamloops Kid", then, was an exception instead of an indication of the norm.

So why did he behave this way if he was a Canadian citizen? As it turns out, anti-Asian sentiment was not new to Canada, and Inouye believed himself to have been a victim of bullying during his childhood in Kamloops, British Columbia. Although it was circumstances that led to his being conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army - he had been studying abroad in Japan there when war broke out - his post near a large group of Canadian POWs prompted a spirit of vengeance. The Canadians in Hong Kong confirm this, noting that Inouye would, in the midst of his harsh treatment of the POWs, make remarks such as, "Now where is your superiority, you dirty scum?"

In other words, Kanao Inouye cannot simply be taken as an example of Japanese soldiers acting cruelly during WWII. His story is also a warning to Canadians and Americans in the present day of the dangerous consequences of racism: in short, racism breeds more racism.

Honda-san: The Mystery Good Samaritan

There is less out there on this man, from what I have seen. I have found several accounts of a Japanese officer and interpreter with the surname Honda who seemed to treat POWs more kindly and humanely than many of his fellows, but, in fact, I do not even know if these accounts point at one man or two. So for our intents and purposes, I will simply call him "Honda-san" ("Mr. Honda" in Japanese).

One account comes from a Canadian officer, Captain S. Martin Banfill, who was captured during a Japanese attack on the Salesian Mission in Hong Kong on December 19, 1941. Prior to the surrender, many POWs were summarily executed, but Banfill was singled out from his men and spared, ending up at a POW camp at the instigation of Honda-san. Had it not been for this, it is likely that Banfill would have died. Attempts to find this mysterious Japanese officer after the war proved futile; a man fitting his description was seen in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb fell on August 9, 1945, but there is no way of knowing if this truly was him or, if so, whether he survived the blast.

A second account comes from Lieutenant C. Douglas Johnston, who was sent to a POW camp after the surrender of December 25. The account of his imprisonment, in full, can be found here. In this, he makes several references to a Sergeant-Major or Warrant Officer, also with the surname Honda, who he describes as "a real gentleman". This was someone who, although known for strict discipline, also engaged with the POWs in conversation and seemed to show genuine interest in them. After the events of the war, Johnston recalls that the Canadian POWs sought to protect him in particular, allowing him to stay at Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel to keep him safe from any generic reprisals against the Japanese.

Are these two accounts speaking of the same man? It is hard to say based on such little evidence (note that Honda is not an uncommon surname in Japan). But, in my opinion, there is a part of me that would rather these be two different people and two completely separate stories of human decency in the chaos of war. Just like a bad apple could spoil the bunch, particularly good ones can leave behind a very positive impression.


"C. Douglas Johnston's Story." Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

"Kanao Inouye." Wikipedia. 12 Jan 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

"Remembering the Kamloops Kid." Veteran Affairs Canada. Government of Canada. 19 Nov 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Roland, Charles G. "Massacre and Rape in Hong Kong: Two Case Studies Involving Medical Personnel and Patients." Journal of Contemporary History. 32.1 (1997): 43-61. Print.

"The Kamloops Kid." WWII in Color. n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Image Credits

Photo (c) WWII in Color

Saturday 6 December 2014

December 6: A Dark Day in Canadian History

Every nation has one: a date that looms large in the national consciousness as the anniversary of some disaster or tragedy. Oftentimes, there's no need to provide details; those in the know will recognize what happened just by the date. For example, think of how easily we recognize 9/11: no-one needs to explain what took place or why it's important, as it is now simply a part of our culture.

Because of Canada's more behind-the-scenes role in world history, I don't think we have anything that resonates quite so much as 9/11. However, I do believe that Canadians have their own "dark day": December 6.

Not many people talk about it (compared to 9/11 at least), not even in Canada itself. But I would posit this as a suitable candidate for one of the darkest days in Canadian history. Why? Because not one, but TWO tragedies took place on December 6.

December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion

Aftermath after the Halifax Explosion (Image (c) Library and Archives Canada; Photographer unknown)
It was, for many Haligonians (i.e. residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia), just a normal day. Yes, Canada was fighting the Great War (aka WWI), and Halifax was a major port city at the time, ferrying supplies and soldiers to and from Canada and Europe.

With such a bustling harbour, perhaps it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a Norwegian ship, the S.S. Imo, was scheduled to leave Halifax after spending several days refuelling before heading on to New York. She had originally been scheduled for a Dec. 5 departure, but had been delayed due to anti-submarine nets being placed in the Halifax harbour in the evening. So, by the next morning, she was eager to be underway.

In order to do so, however, she must pass through a channel known as the Narrows. Harbour protocol dictated that ships were supposed to pass each other port-to-port, each taking the starboard side of the channel in order to keep traffic running smoothly. However, to avoid collision with a tug-boat coming into the harbour at the time, the Imo swerved and overshot her turn into the Narrows, ending up closer to the port side than was safe. This combined with her going above the proper speed limit sent her straight into the path of the French ship SS Mont-Blanc that was entering the harbour at the same time.

Map of Halifax Harbour on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, showing the Imo and Mont-Blanc in their original positions before the Imo began her exit and the Mont-Blanc her entrance. (Image (c)
At 8:45 a.m., the two ships collided.

For all intents and purposes, the collision should have been a mild one. Both ships were travelling at low speed, and had already stopped their engines: it was their continued momentum in the time it took to stop that caused the accident. However, disaster was imminent due to two factors: the collision had caused a fire on the Mont-Blanc, and, being a cargo ship on her way to the European front, she was stocked full of explosives.

The Mont-Blanc's crew fled the ship, but the scene drew a crowd of spectators. It is understandable: on what was just a normal school and working day, a ship caught fire in the Halifax Harbour. It's the same sort of human behaviour that makes motorists slow down upon coming across an accident scene. So many Haligonians stopped what they were doing to go out to the harbour to watch, oblivious to the Mont-Blanc's cargo and what it meant. Even when the Mont-Blanc's crew tried to warn their rescuers about the imminent danger, they were not heard in the confusion.

At 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded, sending white-hot metal debris flying almost 300 metres into the air, which rained down on the city and its inhabitants. The shockwave destroyed the buildings within a 2.6 kilometre radius, but damage stretched far further to nearby communities and was felt in the other maritime provinces. On top of this, the explosion vaporized most of the water in the harbour, and the seawater rushing in to replace it swelled into a tsunami wave 16 metres high.

Halifax two days after the Explosion (Image in Public Domain, found via Wikimedia Commons)
All things told, 1,600 people were killed and 9,000 injured. Not only did this include dockworkers and sailors, but many civilians as well. Particularly horrific in hindsight is the fate of those who watched the Mont-Blanc's fire from their windows as the force of the explosion shattered the glass, blinding many people. The Halifax Explosion was the largest artificial explosion at the time, and would remain so until WWII and the development of nuclear technology. While Halifax has rebuilt itself since then and is now once again a major maritime city, the Halifax Explosion is still a major component of Canada's history: wartime and otherwise.

December 6, 1989: The École Polytechnique Massacre

Chances are, if there's one major Canadian disaster that took place on Dec. 6 that you'll be hearing about on the news, it's this one. Why? Because the events of the École Polytechnique Massacre led to December 6 now being memorialized in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Perhaps that name alone suggests where this is going, but in short: this is the deadliest school shooting in Canadian history.

The École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, as it appears today. (Photograph by MyName(Slp1) on Wikimedia Commons, Image used according to Creative Commons 3.0)
So what does a school shooting have to do with violence against women? It comes down to the shooter and his actions. On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine, aged 25, made his way to École Polytechnique, a post-secondary engineering school affiliated with the University of Montreal. There, he entered a classroom filled with approximately 60 students where a mechanical engineering class was in progress. This is where the violence against women aspect becomes apparent. After gaining control of the classroom, he ordered male and female students to opposite sides of the room. Then, after ordering the male students out of the room, he opened fire on the remaining 9 women, saying, "You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists." Of his victims in that classroom, 6 were killed and the 3 others wounded.

After this, Lépine continued on through the school, aiming his attacks at classrooms, students in the corridors, and a cafeteria, before shooting himself in the head. In total, 14 women (13 students and one employee) were dead, and another 14 people (including 4 men) were injured.

Commemorative Plaque at École Polytechnique listing the names of the deceased. (Image in Public Domain, found via Wikimedia Commons)
In the aftermath of the massacre, a suicide note was found in which Lépine reiterated his anti-feminist rhetoric. His view was that through feminism, women would retain their existing benefits from society and the government as well as claiming those that also belonged to men. In other words, and in my opinion, he confused feminism with misandry, and felt that any woman who sought a higher education (such as these students) or a career outside of what was traditionally feminine was a radical feminist and would ruin his own opportunities in life.

It's no wonder then that the anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre has become a day for remembrance, then, as Canadians continue to raise awareness of violent acts against women in general. However, I wonder if Lépine realized the coincidence his choice of date was creating. December 6 was already an infamous day in Canada - and he made it even more so.


"École Polytechnique Massacre." Wikipedia. 6 Dec 2014.

"Halifax Explosion." Wikipedia. 6 Dec. 2014. 6 Dec. 2014.


All images used under Creative Commons 3.0, individual credits in the captions

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Six Months In: Things I've Learned as a Gallery Interpreter at the Royal Ontario Museum

In terms of my volunteer work at the Royal Ontario Museum, I have recently hit a personal milestone: I have completed my time as what's called a provisional Gallery Interpreter (i.e. a trainee volunteer) and am now officially an active member of the ROM's Department of Museum Volunteers. I do get some perks from this: best one being my own ID badge/key card so I don't need to trouble fellow volunteers to let me in each time I show up for a shift.

The ROM's famous Rotunda Ceiling mosaic. The text reads: THAT ALL MEN MAY KNOW HIS WORK
So what's a Gallery Interpreter, you ask? What we do is go out into the galleries with a small specimen or artifact that visitors could interact with. Engagements take the form of a short Q&A session, where we use guiding questions to offer information about both the object(s) we have, and the surrounding relevant museum displays. I myself spend most of my time in the two Canadian galleries at the ROM - the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples; and the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada - with one specimen each: a miniature replica birchbark canoe in the first, and a late 19th-century French-Canadian maple sugar mould in the latter.

A "period room" set up in the style of 16th century England in the Samuel European Galleries at the ROM. This is an example of one of my favourite parts of the museum, albeit not where I actually work.
Officially, I have only been a Gallery Interpreter since this past July, but before that, there had been more rigorous training where I had gone out into the galleries accompanied by a more experienced GI (as we're called for short), meaning that I have been out and about in those galleries for approximately half a year by this point. And in this half a year, I have learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way: things that I am sharing with you now as some of my favourite highlights thus far in my life as a Gallery Interpreter at the ROM.

1. Nothing quite beats working with historical objects.

Especially when said objects just happen to be particularly old, or beautiful, or relevant to your field of interest. I still remember when, in the early stages of my training (i.e. before I was even in the galleries), I was given a demo from an instructor on how one of these Q&A sessions would work. The gentleman had a piece of mosaic with him, and I was to pose as the "visitor". I knew going into the dialogue that the mosaic was used in the ROM's Ancient Roman gallery, but imagine my surprise when I discovered that the fragment I was handling was actually 2,000 years old, and a genuine artifact! And since our initial training included objects from both the ROM's Natural History and World Culture collections, I'm sure that's not even the oldest thing I handled by the time I was done.

2. The fascination applies to visitors as well.

I daresay some of the giddiness that comes from working with historical artifacts might seem to come just from my being somewhat of a history enthusiast. However, it's not just me or fellow museum volunteers and employers who get like that: the visitors do, too. For instance, while the miniature birchbark canoe I work with is a replica, I stand near some First Nations birchbark canoes that are well over a hundred years old. And people love it when I point that out!

One of the original First Nations birchbark canoes at the ROM. I work with a smaller, miniature version when I chat with visitors.
The same sort of thing happens with the maple sugar mould as well. Many visitors are fascinated by the fact that not only am I holding an artifact from the late 19th century, but that (with gloves and my supervision) they are welcome to touch it as well. GIs are trained to make sure that artifacts are handled with care at all times (for example: cupping our hands below the visitor's to catch any objects that might fall), so it's a fun and safe experience for everyone involved.

3. Some people just want to be taught.

I've seen this a number of times already in the past six months. The intent for the GIs is to engage with visitors in a conversation, and the Q&A idea stems from that. However, I have had several instances where visitors who are interested don't want the preamble. They'll come right up to me, point at what I'm holding, and ask, "What is that?" Depending on the overall tone of the conversation so far, I sometimes respond by asking for guesses, but it certainly has happened where I end up just telling them directly, and the visitor is very appreciative for the information. This happens a lot with the maple sugar mould in particular, since it's not as immediately recognizable an object as the birchbark canoe. I can see how trying to guess what it is can be rather intimidating, actually.

19th-century French-Canadian maple sugar moulds at the ROM.

4. Sometimes, I am the one who gets taught - and that's even better.

Just about every single GI has had an encounter like this: a visitor comes by who turns out to be an expert in the field relating to the object in question. I hear a lot of these stories coming from the Natural History sections of the ROM in particular, especially relating to children who are currently in their dinosaur/animal enthusiast stage.

I myself have had a similar experience with the miniature birchbark canoe. One woman I met turned out, in fact, to be First Nations herself (specifically Ojibway) and made similar miniature canoes as a hobby. So she was the one telling me a lot about the process she used: soaking the birchbark to make it pliable, sewing it with sinew (the ROM's replica uses thread), and even beading her canoes for decoration. That was definitely a rewarding experience, and I hope to have more in the future!

5. Being a GI can be a great chance for cultural exchange.
Folk musicians from the ROM's Polish Heritage Day in the summer of 2014, one of many such Heritage Days devoted to Canada's many ethnic communities as part of the ROM's summer activities.
 The ROM receives visitors from all over the world - and even if it didn't, Canada is a sufficiently multicultural nation for us to meet visitors from all sorts of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. What this means is that some of the conversations I have had as a GI focus around comparisons between cultures: Canadian and the visitor's culture of origin.

Some such instances that come to my mind right now include a Swedish visitor talking about woodworking techniques while looking at the birchbark canoes, an East Asian family comparing the qualities of birchbark as a construction material compared to bamboo, a Brazilian family comparing the handiwork of Canada's First Nations peoples with their own indigenous crafts, yet another Brazilian visitor telling me about how rubber is made from tree sap harvested like Canada's maple sap is, and visitors from maple-producing parts of the United States giving me tips and pointers on some of the inner workings of the business.

And that's just scratching the surface!

6. Sometimes, the visitor's more interested in me than in the objects.

I've had cases where overseas tourists are more interested in sharing to me about their thoughts on their trip to Canada thus far than anything directly related to the objects I'm working with. And that's fine - if everyone is comfortable and at ease, I am more than willing to listen and, hopefully, provide further positive memories for them to bring home.

There's also been one occasion where I was in the First Peoples gallery with the birchbark canoe, and a visitor asked me if I was First Nations myself. I told him that no, I wasn't; I'm actually Chinese. He was surprised, since he thought that if I was working in a First Nations-related gallery, I would likely have to be First Nations myself. That's the sort of question that gave me pause to think for quite a long time afterwards.

7. Because, like it or not, politics does get involved sometimes.

Perhaps this is a lesson that's rather gallery-specific, as I have only had this sort of thing happen to me when I'm in the First Peoples gallery. Many visitors are genuinely curious about the place that the First Peoples have in Canada, and I, being a visible ROM worker, naturally become a magnet for those questions.

Modern-art sculpture inspired by the traditional Plains First Nations eagle feather headdress: the wapaha.
 This is especially the case since the history of Canada's First Peoples is a painful one: one that is based on what once was a form of cooperation between Native Peoples and Europeans, but that degenerated into oppression and discrimination before now steadily working towards some form of reconciliation and recognition. So it's understandable that some visitors are concerned, for instance, that the ROM is presenting a colonialist view on the history - particularly since so many of our artifacts come from 19th and early 20th century European donors. Other times, however, I am met with surprise that the First Peoples and their cultures have survived through the tribulation into the present day: their view was that this had all been in the past, but the ROM is careful to show the First Peoples in the present as well.

In both cases, I respond the same way: acknowledge the questions and comments, but encourage the visitors to direct them to the actual ROM curators, who could give more thorough answers than me. Particularly in the former case, things can get very touchy, very fast; and as a GI, I'm not in the position to actually discuss the ROM's political stance. So I pass it on, and hope for the best.

I will, however, reveal this much: the First Peoples gallery at the ROM was designed with the input of many First Nations advisers, and the ROM has been careful to make sure that all the current interpretations and commentaries shown are actually from a Native perspective.

Six months in, and I've already learned so much. Who knows where I'll be after another six!


All photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum, taken by Kita Inoru

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Canadians in Hong Kong: Giving Me My Remembrance Day

WWII Canadian Recruiting Poster referencing Hong Kong
When I was a kid, I didn't care about Remembrance Day.

Sure, in my head, I knew what it was about: every year, November 11 was set aside for Canadians to remember those who had given their lives for the country in WWI, WWII, and subsequent wars since. I'd attend the ceremonies, I'd wear the poppy, I'd recite In Flanders Fields, I'd observe the moment of silence.

But in my heart, I felt nothing.

Perhaps, if you understood where I was coming from, I would not seem so callous. It's not that I didn't appreciate the sacrifices made by our armed forces. I knew what they were fighting for, and supported it as wholeheartedly as the next kid in the classroom. My indifference to Remembrance Day didn't come from some overarching anti-war sentiment. It wasn't anything that noble. No. Little elementary-school-aged me simply thought there was nothing in Remembrance Day to remember. I wasn't born in Canada. My parents weren't born in Canada. I was just a little Chinese immigrant girl from Hong Kong who thought that this was all "white people's stuff".

You could, I suppose, pin some blame on the educational system for this. Because I know now that Canada's military history is, in fact, my military history. Not just because my views have become broader (although they have), but because of something that my school teachers had neglected to tell me: Not only was Hong Kong involved in the World Wars, but Canadians fought there, too.

Troops of C Force en route to Sham Shul Po Barracks, Hong Kong, 16 November 1941.
So how did I find out about this? I did so on my own, seemingly by chance. During an eighth-grade school trip (the same one to Quebec City I'd mentioned in previous blog posts), we had made a stopover in Ottawa before moving on to Quebec. One of our destinations was the Canadian War Museum, where we were given some time to explore at will. I don't remember how I'd wound up separated from the group of classmates I was with when we were in the section devoted to WWII (although I do remember something about them looking at Hitler's car). But regardless of how it happened, I was, for several minutes, alone, having gone deeper into the exhibition hall than anyone else.

And that's when I saw him.

Sounds creepy, yes, but in fact, it was. I've become quite used to seeing models and mannequins in museums by this point, but back then, aged 14, I wasn't. Besides, I was on my own in a museum exhibition about the Canadians in WWII: it was dim, quiet, and just a bit eerie to begin with. The last thing I was expecting to see out of the corner of my eye was the figure of a tall, dirty, Caucasian man, shirtless and clad only in a pair of ragged khaki shorts, standing with his head bowed and his hands stretched out in front, holding a small bowl.

Again, in my head, I must have known that this was simply a model, but that didn't stop me from both being scared out of my wits, and inexorably drawn to him. I knew that I shouldn't be going deeper into the exhibition - I'd get in a good deal of trouble if it was discovered that I was alone, separated from the group and unsupervised. But I did anyway. I wanted to find out who this man was, and why he looked the way he did. After all, I was expecting to see figures of men in uniform, not something so pathetic as this.

And it's at this moment when Remembrance Day for me changed forever. I couldn't bring myself to look at the man directly for very long, but I gleaned enough to discover that he was a representation of the Canadian POWs who had been captured after losing to the Japanese in Hong Kong in December 1941.
Canadian and British prisoners-of-war liberated by the boarding party from HMCS Prince Robert, Hong Kong, August 1945.
It was years later before I tried to look up the events in any amount of detail, and perhaps that is a story best saved for another day. In short, Canadian troops were sent to defend Hong Kong, a British colony at the time, from the encroaching Imperial Japanese Army. On December 8, 1941, at the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor (on December 7, 1941 - timezone differences), the Japanese began their offensive against Hong Kong in earnest. Along with other British Commonwealth troops, the Canadians tried to push them back, but ultimately conceded defeat and surrendered on December 25, 1941.

If anyone here is surprised to find out that either Hong Kong or Canada were involved in the Pacific Theatre in WWII, I don't blame you. That is, after all, what I thought until I was 14. Since then, I've both come to a better understanding of what Canada's forces did all over the world, not just in Hong Kong, and Remembrance Day has become closer to my heart in more ways than one. Perhaps too close, and not always in ways relating to the military, but still: close.

So today, on November 11, 2014, I want to say this to those Canadian soldiers who fought in Hong Kong all those years ago, and their descendents: Thank you. Not only did you do your utmost to defend my land and my people, but you have also helped to shape me into the Canadian that I am today, over 70 years later.

Image Credit

WWII Poster (c) Canadian War Museum

Photographs (c) Library and Archives Canada