Growing up in a small southern Alberta farming community isolated me from many things, including exposure to other Canadians of Japanese heritage. Until my teens, my heritage was no different than anyone else's at school. It just happened that my hair and eyes were of different colour.
It became my dream to study law when I grew up, which I did. It came as a shock to think of ideas like race, culture, and the politics of being.
In fact it was while preparing a political science paper at university that I first learned of the evacuation and internment of Canadians of Japanese ancestry during World War II. My own family (and I grew up in a very large extended family) never mentioned their wartime experience to me. Not once.
As I traveled and met different people over the years, I heard many untold stories that most Canadians, because of their experience or education, were not aware of. Through my visual artwork and film, I try to tell some of these stories. Our stories.
It was at a 1995 screening of my first documentary, The Last Harvest, at International Women's Day in Victoria that I first met Winifred Awmack. She was in that audience and came to speak to me afterwards. Winifred told me some of her personal story teaching high school at an internment camp for incarcerated Japanese Canadians in Tashme, B.C. She had written a book about her experiences in the camp and we did an exchange: her book for my video.
For several years we kept in touch. We talked about sharing her experiences and perspective about this part of our history on film. When Toronto producer Peter Raymont of White Pine Pictures approached me to do an episode for his television series, A Scattering of Seeds, I proposed my wish to tell Winifred’s story.
This became the film Watari Dori.
The first task was to locate some students who were interned in Tashme and taught by Winifred. Some of her ex-students had to repatriate to Japan with their parents, and some moved to other parts of Canada. Over the years since 1949, Winifred had kept in contact with many of her students through letters.
I was looking for a different twist to the immigration story. Consider someone who was born a Canadian, then through repatriation lost their Canadian birthright, only to return to Canada to reclaim Canadian citizenship in their adult years. With the aid of Winifred's Tashme student contacts, we searched for someone with this experience and found Irene Tusyuki.
Watari Dori is the story of Irene (Kato) Tsuyuki of Surrey, B.C. who was a Canadian born student of Winifred Awmack's at the Tashme internment camp, repatriated by the Canadian government and fought to return and reclaim her place as a Canadian.
After filming Irene and Winifred separately in their own homes, we arranged for the two women meet and travel together to what remains of the Tashme internment camp (near Hope B.C.).
After the first few seconds of their reunion, all the years that passed since 1949 that had separated them, fell away. Stories poured out, laughter filled the air, and lots of tears fell. Together a teacher and her student had come full circle after 50 years.
I chose the title Watari Dori because it is a Japanese phrase that means migrating birds ‐ where year after year, generation after generation, life in nature (birds, insects, fish) keep returning to their birthplace because of something deep within them, an instinct that takes them back to a place of their beginning. We as humans often experience this too.
Watari Dori, was also the name of a silkscreen print from one of my art series, that was used to raise funds backing the Japanese Canadian Redress Campaign (see unique projects). And before that, it was the name of one of my sailboats in the Quebec/Ontario waters. Other boaters would make fun of the name when it came into anchor, calling it the 'watery dory' instead of ‘watari dori’.
In many different ways, watari dori has been a part of my journey since the beginning.