Long lost story of Japanese couple who lived in museum attic is focus of new exhibit

Don and Arlene Kawasoe

This is a photo of Arlene and Don Kawasoe at the opening of Redefining Home at Campbell House museum. The exhibit is about their parents, Harold and Hana (featured in the framed photos here) who lived in the attic of what is now Campbell House from 1948 to 1951

I highly recommend the latest exhibit at Campbell House Museum called Redefining Home. It’s a great example of how a colonial-era historic house museum can stay relevant and contribute to conversations about current issues.  It’s a story of enduring love and it’s a story with national resonance. 

I liked the exhibit so much that I wrote the following news article for a local newspaper. It didn’t get published so I am posting it here.


Don and Arlene Kawasoe remember their parents pointing out a stately mansion in downtown Toronto “That was our honeymoon house, they used to joke.”  But they could never have imagined that their “honeymoon house” would eventually become a museum featuring an exhibit about their life.

In 1948, Harold and Hana Kawasoe were newlyweds and lived in the third-floor attic of what is now Campbell House Museum. Both of their families had been uprooted from their British Columbia homes as part of the Canadian government’s decision to intern Japanese Canadian citizens as “enemy aliens” during the Second World War.

Harold and Hana have both passed away but their grown children, Don and Arlene Kawasoe, were on hand to tour the exhibit on opening night.  “It’s a thrill” Don says about having his parents’ story told in a museum.  “They took tremendous pride when someone of Japanese ancestry did well. It was a ratification that they were not these aliens.”

Campbell House, built in 1822 for Chief Justice William Campbell, a member of Toronto’s ruling elite, was moved to the corner of Queen St. and University Ave. in 1972. But in the 1940s the house was located at Adelaide and Frederick streets and was home to Hobb’s Glass, a manufacturing business run by successful businessman Clare Wood who disagreed with how the Canadian government was treating citizens of Japanese origin.

For the month of March, the museum is telling Harold and Hana’s story with help from a family photo album shared by Don and Arlene. Called Redefining Home, it traces the journey of Harold and Hana through detention centres and labour camps, first jobs, their eventual meeting in Toronto and marriage.   But Don is quick to point out that “what’s important is also the larger story of the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were labelled enemy aliens and taken from their homes on Canada’s west coast in 1942.”


Kawasoe family photos line the stairwell at Campbell House

Typically, museums like Campbell House tell the story of leading pioneer citizens. But Campbell House Museum Director Liz Driver believes historic house museums can do much more.  “People think these colonial houses can only do one thing. But there’s a whole lot more going on in these places.“

Harold’s and Hana’s story came to light because of a chance meeting with a film producer.  “He wandered into the house looking for a backdrop for a movie and mentioned that the house had once belonged to his father-in-law, Clare Wood”, says Driver.  She knew that a Japanese couple had once lived in the house but didn’t know much more. The museum staff was then able to connect with Clare’s son, David Wood, who put them in touch with Don and Arlene.

Don talks about the feelings of hurt, anger and disbelief his parents felt and the humiliation of reporting in to a detention centre with a few belongings in a suitcase.  Japanese Canadians were given 24 hours’ notice to evacuate their homes and were allowed to bring 150 pounds of personal belongings.  A brown suitcase that held some of these possessions holds pride of place in the exhibit.

Harold and his brother, Mits, were working at a farm camp near London, Ontario when Harold responded to an advertisement from Clare Wood who was looking for a gardener for his estate. Wood hired both Harold and Mits.  “That was a transformative moment,” says Don. “Wood gave Dad and Mits a chance to work and that was pretty unusual in 1942.”

In 1945 Wood moved his glass business to Toronto and located it in what is now Campbell House and asked Harold to be the gardener at his new Rosedale home.  Harold became like a big brother to Clare’s son David, who has stayed in touch with the Kawasoe family ever since.  David Wood fondly remembers Harold giving him and his brother piggy back rides.   Wood also says he remembers the “society ladies” asking his mother how she could leave her boys with “those Japanese.” His mother’s response, recalls Wood, was “My boys are safe.”

Included in the exhibit is a letter from then-Toronto Mayor Frederick Conboy refusing a request from a Japanese Canadian citizen to take up residence in Toronto in order to attend university.

Once in Toronto, Harold lived at the Japanese Man’s Cooperative Residence, one of the few places where Japanese Canadians were welcomed. Hana worked in the kitchen.

When they decided to get married, Wood offered the couple the attic above his business offices.  “He knew it would provide them with a safe space,” says Driver. “In fact he would often drive Harold home from work because he knew how difficult it was for a Japanese man to walk through the city.”

Don says the story of the Japanese internment is now well known but “what is not so well known is that there were so many Canadians that reached out to help.” He says the Wood family continued to support his parents after they moved to their house in East York. The exhibit notes other Torontonians who helped, including Ed Mirvish, who established a baseball team welcoming Japanese Canadians.

The exhibit, which includes tours of the attic, closes April 1, exactly 70 years to the day when Japanese Canadians regained their freedom and legal restrictions used to control their movements were removed.


How Canada 150 is becoming a discussion rather than an anniversary celebration.

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The most important thing to come out of the Canada 150 celebrations may be the critical discussion that’s happening across the country about how we tell Canada’s story.

The City of Vancouver decided to modify the Canada 150 title by adding a plus sign so that it reads Canada 150+ to acknowledge the thousands of years of history that occurred before 1867.   Vancouver’s official web site says “Canada 150+ will be a uniquely Vancouver commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, acknowledging an ancient past and looking toward a future where all communities, nations, and peoples are walking together as a society, stronger than ever before. “

In a recent story called, How Indigenous People are Rebranding Canada 150, MacLean’s Magazine comments “So, far from being another hurrah for Canada, the event is deliberately challenging our collective amnesia.”

University College, the founding College of the University of Toronto, has taken a leading role in the discussion by marking Canada’s 150 with Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: a Story of Resilience” an exhibition that premiered at the University of Toronto Art Centre location and is now travelling across Canada. Doug Ainslie, Principal of University College, writes in this months’ alumni magazine, that Monkman used art and carefully curated historical artifacts to tell the story of Confederation from a queer indigenous perspective. He required us to see what is too often erased in national histories: those who have been subjected to violence, to cultural genocide, to ongoing displacement. In doing so he exemplified what the University can offer during this sesquicentennial year; not further celebration, but historically informed investigations of what it means to be Canadian and where our country is heading.

Last Sunday CBC devoted its national Cross-Country Check-up program to the question: “Should we change the names of streets and monuments that honour contentious figures?”  What followed was a thoughtful discussion about the nature of public celebration and commemoration.

And then there is the disappointing Story of Us broadcast on CBC in early April to celebrate Canada 150. So far both the governments of Quebec and Nova Scotia are asking for apologies, stating that the 10-part series ignores key historical events and feeds into prejudices. Others have called it an anglo centric production that condenses 12,000 years of aboriginal history and 150 years of New France into one hour.

This is all a far cry from 1967 when celebration of 100 years of history was never questioned. Perhaps the celebration of Canada 150 or Canada 150+ is that both the celebration and the 150 years are being questioned.

The Power of Objects in the Great War Attic

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a wonderful WWI project completed a few years ago by City of Toronto Museums in partnership with Historica Canada and York University.   It’s a great example of how museums are increasingly inviting the public in to co-create experiences and share curatorial authority.

Called Toronto’s Great War Attic, the project invited everyday Torontonians to bring their family heirlooms from the Great War to a series of public sessions held at different locations throughout the city. Once there the participants told their stories and showed their heirlooms to museum staff, who in turn shared their expertise of the Great War and the heirlooms.

In many cases the participants had done a lot of detective work to piece together the story on these heirlooms since they had been passed down through generations.

One of the stories is told by a woman who is a nurse. She has the instrument bag from her great aunt who was a nurse in WWI. By using her contemporary nursing knowledge and by examining the antique medical instruments she pieces together an understanding of what nursing was like during the Great War.

She discovers the metal syringe with the needle still secured and contrasts this with the disposal ones used today. She marvels at how difficult the instruments must have been to clean. “How many bodies did these touch? How many people did she help?”

Another participant is a woman who finally opens a box of letters that her parents had stored in their basement and that her grandparents had stored in theirs.  The letters are from Flanders France and are from her great uncle. They had never been opened until she opened them just two years ago.  The letters had arrived in Canada after he was killed.

The best of the stories were made in to short 5-6 minute video. They are simple but moving.

What I find most interesting in watching these videos is the power of the objects— so much more powerful had I seen them in an exhibit about the Great War. The power of the story and the person telling it is what gives these objects so much more resonance. This project is a good example of how museums are sharing their curatorial power with everyday citizens to create better experiences.

Please have a look at the video with this post. What do you think of this method of serving up history?  I think it works because it uses a personal story to make us want to learn the bigger narrative. And it makes us feel part of a bigger community.

What do you think about citizen or non-experts sharing a part of the curatorial voice in museums?



Make Your Mark


Who doesn’t remember making something with paper and scissors and getting glue all over your hands and then peeling off the dried glue?

This childhood memory is the inspiration behind the art project Make Your Mark. I had the opportunity to speak with Meghan Ross over coffee last week at the Annex Common.  She’s the artist behind the project and while we talked Meghan spread a thin film of glue on my middle finder then pulled a hair dryer out of her purse which she carries everywhere so that she can dry the glue. During this process, she asks “What’s your story” and and begins recording though we didn’t do this in the coffee shop since there was too much ambient noise.  Once the glue is dry she covers it with scotch tape and then peels it off. There, on this piece of tape is my unique imprint. It’s the opposite of a criminal finger print, Meghan explains.  “It’s fragile, ethereal. It has no gender, race or class.”

Meghan’s idea, which is scheduled to be a Nuit Blanche installation at Union Station, is to gather the imprints and the stories of people from all over Toronto and to hang them together.  The stories will be presented in audio form. Meghan, along with Gabby Bevilacqua and Joey Jacobson make up the BXLS Collective that created the Make Your Mark proposal and submitted it to the Nuit team. Check out this video made by Gabby.

“With the gentle and widely playful gesture of drying glue on your finger and peeling it off each person can experience the imprint of their unique pattern revealed in front of them,” explains Megan.

“It’s the simplest expression of humanity. It’s taking place in Toronto during Canada 150 but it could also be placed anywhere in the world. It’s about humans having a mark.”

Meghan is a 20-something recent graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design but she speaks with a wisdom beyond her years. Another emerging voice with insight into the issue of identity.

The idea for Make Your Mark came out of Meghan’s graduate thesis titled Elmer’s Guide to Nostalgia.  The Elmer’s of course refers to the ubiquitous Elmer’s glue. It’s a childish habit turned in to a piece of contemporary art.

I took this one last quote from her web site.

“This process, when repeated tens of thousands of times, will collectively compose a representation of the essence of Toronto. Make Your Mark is the embodiment of individual identity in our great city and country. It is a pavilion that can occupy any place, where people will be surrounded by the absolute uniqueness of each citizen. Like the strokes of a brush in a masterful painting, each translucent fingerprint, initialled by the person who made it, will contribute to the creation of an inclusive space filled with light, movement, personal stories, and inspiration.

Looking forward to seeing it. Nuit Blanch is September 30, 2017.