Steveston’s Blue Cabin welcomes new artist in residence

Erica H. Isomura shares her family’s story of the internment of Japanese Canadians

Erica H. Isomura after the July 22 artist talk at the Blue Cabin in Steveston. (Ahanya Tonse)

Erica H. Isomura after the July 22 artist talk at the Blue Cabin in Steveston.
(Ahanya Tonse)

“Perhaps what I seek was left behind in the old country many moons ago. Perhaps I am searching for something that exists in another language which I never learned to speak.”

That is how Erica H. Isomura, a Canadian-born multiracial artist, expresses herself through her graphic novel, SIFTING

Isomura was welcomed to the Blue Cabin in Steveston as the artist-in-residence in June. On July 22, Isomura entered the 96-year-old floating residency to talk about her original graphic art, inspired by her ancestral history. 

“It is a part of building a relationship with those ancestors and the family members that I never got the chance to meet,” Isomura says. 

“It’s been amazing to be out in Steveston on the water and on boats thinking about what that experience was like for when my family members were working and living in canaries and boats.”

The Blue Cabin provides a designated space for artists to work, but also welcomes the community for talks and workshops. 

“There’s always a breadth of different kinds of people with different histories that come to these events,” says Joni Schinkel, Blue Cabin project coordinator. 

“People from different walks of life might have different understandings or different levels of knowledge around these kinds of things. It’s really nice to hear from somebody who has [no] direct history, but [has] family history.”

Isomura was 20 when she interviewed her father about his Japanese-Canadian background but failed to get answers to her questions. 

“I would later learn that the silence of my family history was not uncommon,” Isomura says. 

About 21,000 Japanese-Canadians were sent to internment camps during the Second World War. About 60 per cent of those interned were born in Canada but were labeled as “enemy aliens.” The government used these internees for labour work such as building railroads and highways.  

Isomura’s ancestors were among these masses and were interned in 1942 due to national security concerns. In 2015, Isomura visited Tashme, a former internment site now known as Sunshine Valley, with the hope of learning more about her ancestors. 

“At the campground there’s this community space and there was a map and all the families who were interned,” she says. “I was really disappointed because I couldn’t find my grandma’s family name listed.”

In 2017, Isomura worked at the Nikkei National Museum, which houses national Japanese-Canadian archives. She was encouraged to do in-depth research on her ancestral background which led Isomura to a shoebox of her grandmother’s things containing a wallet and pictures in it. 

“[This was] how I learned the names of my great grandparents for the first time,” Isomura says. 

She still couldn’t find any record of her grandmother’s maiden name, making her realize the limitations of the archives. Isomura learned her great-grandfather was a fisherman for the Nelson Brothers cannery. 

Isomura visited a few places in search of her ancestral history. She found plants from former Japanese-Canadian incarceration and internment sites, including Tashme and Hastings Park. She started creating cyanotype photography to preserve these historical findings. 

“I really like the fact that Erica dove into the local history and took inspiration from the plants, the places, and even the artifacts in the immediate vicinity, as well as the archives, and made use of all kinds of different things within easy reach of the current location of Blue Cabin,” says John Welch, a professor at Simon Fraser University. 

Isomura started writing stories as a way of imagining what her ancestors’ experiences were like. She believes this type of work is important, especially today. 

“There [are] still ongoing forms of displacement that are institutionalized. … I think it does relate to a broader view of who we see as belonging and [not] belonging because there’s always going to be issues of race and class and gender that are affecting these decisions,” she says. 

“I don’t want this to be seen as it’s only in the past because these issues are very significant.”