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Moving forward : the "save the Kogawa house" campaign and reconciliatory politics in Canada Gibson, Gregory Dean


This paper examines the symbolic implications of preserving Canadian author Joy Kogawa’s childhood home in the name of “reconciliation.” The house features prominently in Kogawa’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel Obasan, based in part on her experience of Japanese Canadian internment during World War II. From 2003 to 2006, the house was poised for demolition until a non-profit land trust secured the house’s protection through a campaign guided by ideals of “hope, healing, and reconciliation.” In the current global climate of redress, the oft-invoked terms “reconciliation” and “healing” are increasingly evacuated of meaning, and are consequently dismissed simply as empty rhetoric. I sought to determine how these terms operated in the context of the Kogawa House. In order to assess the site’s capacity to engage reconciliatory ideals, I consulted and analyzed fundraising materials published by campaign organizers, letters of support from the public, and relevant media reports. I argue first that the real-world history of internment converged conceptually with Obasan’s fictionalized telling of these events so that the house and Kogawa herself became cognitive metonyms for the larger injustice. As a result, collective/national healing and reconciliation could be metonymically enacted through more familiar modes of interpersonal reconciliation. For example, Kogawa’s long-awaited “homecoming,” a deeply meaningful moment for the author herself, could become a gesture of symbolic restitution for all Japanese Canadians’ lost property. The second argument central to this thesis is that the historically dark period of Japanese Canadian internment, and its legacies, was made more intelligible and coherent for various stakeholders through the overlapping narratives constructed around saving the Kogawa House. I contend that what was at stake in this heritage preservation project was not only post-war relations between Japanese Canadians and the nation that betrayed them, but also the dominant Canadian narrative of multiculturalism—that Canada is a country that embraces diversity and upholds human rights. This reconciliatory project maintained the coherence of this vital Canadian myth. I conclude by claiming the Kogawa House as a successful model for community-based projects aimed at sustainable reconciliation, where ongoing engagement with past injustices is vital to deterrence and non-repetition of future ones.

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