Why the City Hesitated to Proclaim the Anniversary of the Nanking Massacre
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam got the 75th anniversary of the infamous atrocity put on the City's official calendar, but she says doing so was unusually hard.
Official proclamations of special commemorative occasions are plentiful at City Hall: the City has publicly declared everything from Foursquare Day to Bullying Awareness Week. But Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) was frustrated by the difficulties she encountered when she tried to win official recognition for the 75th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre. Council finally decided to make that proclamation, at Wong-Tam’s urging, earlier today.
“I don’t believe we’re asking anything extraordinary, although this is a significant anniversary,” she said during an interview before the council decision. “You would never say to the Jewish community that you would not proclaim Holocaust Awareness Week.”
The Nanking Massacre was a six-week-long mass murder that ultimately claimed the lives of 250,000 to 300,000 people, following the Japanese capture of the Chinese city in December 1937. The atrocity contributed to the longstanding tension between Japan and China. Some Japanese nationalists and institutions still deny that the massacre was as horrific as historians agree that it was.
When City Hall’s Protocol Services office received Wong-Tam’s request for the proclamation, they denied it on the basis that it was “politically controversial,” and therefore against the proclamation criteria. In explaining this decision, they sent Wong-Tam a link to the Nanking Massacre Wikipedia page, which has a section that describes its associated “controversy.” The mayor’s office, which has the power to act independently of Protocol Services, relied on the office’s rationale, and chose not to proclaim the anniversary. Even so, despite a ruling from council speaker Frances Nunziata that Wong-Tam’s motion requesting the proclamation (seconded by Ward 41 councillor Chin Lee) was not urgent, council adopted it today.
The difficulty in passing the proclamation—normally a simple matter—highlights the underlying importance of raising awareness about the massacre. In an effort to share understanding of Nanking with the mayor, Wong-Tam offered books and DVDs, but received no response. “It’s important to understand and validate the fact that [the victims’] pain is real,” she told Torontoist. A difficult process like the one she faced, she said, “effectively re-victimizes the victims.”
Wong-Tam said Councillor Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt), a Governor General’s Award–winning historian, told her before council’s lunch break on Tuesday that “it’s time for you guys to move on.” When asked about the statement, which Wong-Tam called “shocking,” Kelly said he couldn’t recall any specific exchange, but he didn’t deny it. The Scarborough councillor, who taught a Chinese history course at Upper Canada College in the 1970s, added that he would support the proclamation of the 75th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre, but would prefer more awareness of Canadian history, like the treatment of Canadian prisoners of war during World War Two. “[The massacre] is something that happened purely in an Asian context between two Asian societies,” he said during an interview.
“I’m not sure Canadian society is at a point where it has to be instructed about these things,” he added, “because I think we have values that preclude being attracted to behaviour like that.”
City Hall visitors will have an opportunity to reflect on and learn about the massacre, because a photo exhibition is on display in the rotunda. There will also be vigils, student conferences, and community forums throughout the city over the course of next couple of weeks.