Sugar beet fields in the landscape of Canada’s Japanese internment

Artist Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon.| Photo courtesy of Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon

2017, Canada’s 150th birthday, also marked the 75th anniversary of Canada’s Japanese Internment. Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon, a fourth generation Japanese-Canadian, felt compelled to bring the stories told by her grandparents and great-grandparents back to the forefront.

With Keri Latimer, the two Japanese-Canadian artists will present Beta Vulgaris: The Sugar Beet Projects, an art installation followed by events allowing audiences to experience Japanese culture at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre (NNMCC). The show will be open for three months starting on February 10.

“These stories are both historical and contemporary. As we begin to recognize the dynamics of fear and distrust in the media of today’s migrants and refugees, it is important to bring the story of Japanese internment back to the forefront, as a reminder of the extremes that policies based on fear can result in,” says McKinnon.

A Zen garden made of sugar

Beta Vulgaris: The Sugar Beet Projects explores the relationship between an apparently benign material, sugar, and the hard times the Japanese community went through. Audiences will be invited to a multimedia Zen garden made of granulated sugar and punctuated by large boulders sculpted out of molten and burnt sugar.

“The traditional Zen garden is an enclosed, meditative space of raked sand and strategically placed boulders. Historically the white sand symbolizes purity, and in the Zen garden it represents water, emptiness, and distance,” explains McKinnon. “Contrasting the expression of sugar’s purity, generosity and neutrality is its history and conditions of labour.”

For most Japanese-Canadians, the sugar beet fields stood for gross injustice during the Second World War, when the BC Security Commission Council organized the Sugar Beet Projects. Due to the labour shortage and the need to supply troops overseas with cheap sugar, Japanese-Canadian internees had no choice but to move to the Prairies or Ontario and work on the sugar beet fields. They were told only if they did so would they be able to live with their families. The evacuees at the time supplied the labour for 65 percent of Alberta’s sugar beet acreage.

A contemporary context

As a fourth generation Japanese-Canadian, McKinnon has been exposed to the history of her community from a tender age. This has inspired a sense of justice in her and has shone a spotlight on the underemphasized.

“We have grown up within the same conditions of displacement, hearing the stories from grandparents and great-grandparents about the West Coast, and the struggles to re-establish community and pride in the aftermath of relocation,” says McKinnon, referring to her shared experiences with Keri Latimer, a musician and artist of the exhibit. “We have both explored themes of identity, landscape, dislocation and hybridity in our fields. Keri through her music and myself through writing, landscape architecture, art and performance.”

Last July, the artists went on a journey from the Hastings Park Horse Barns through B.C.’s interior internment camps and the wide open plains of the sugar beet fields in southern Alberta, where their great-grandparents were interned and farmed their own lands for the rest of their lives. The video shot during the trip will be projected onto the sugared surfaces at the exhibit.

“These video loops expose the political and personal realities behind the seemingly innocuous sugar crystal whose generic proliferation and extensive processing render it without impurities that belies its source, whether cane or beet. What is left is a crystalline powder with nothing to hide, particles without history,” says McKinnon. “But the conditions of sugar production have been anything but generic. They have affected massive demographic, economic and cultural shifts within local and regional landscapes that have had lasting intergenerational affects that linger today.”

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