Fonds RBSC-ARC-1786 - Joan Gillis fonds

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Joan Gillis fonds

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  • Multiple media

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Physical description

24 cm of textual records.
10 photographs : b&w

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Biographical history

Joan Parolin (née Gillis) was born Winnifred Joan Gillis on January 16th, 1928. She was born in Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island where she spent the first ten years of her life, with her mother Margaret Forster, her father William Gillis, her younger sister Donalda Gillis, and her uncle Jim Gillis. Here her father and Uncle worked as contract loggers, until her Uncle was killed in a logging accident in the summer of 1937. Following this, her family moved to a one-acre property and house on Scott Hill in Surrey. This home was roughly a mile from the Patullo Bridge in an agricultural area, then known as South Westminster. The family kept chickens, and a cherry orchard, and the father sold eggs at work, while the children sold cherries at a roadside stand during the summer. At the age of 10, Joan began attending South Westminster Elementary school on 104th avenue. Here she met her friend Sumi Mototsune whose father owned a small boat-building yard on the Fraser River, near the Patullo Bridge. She attended South Westminster Elementary until Grade 7 and then Sir Richard McBride School in New Westminster. She began Grade 7 on September 3rd 1939; the same day that Britain and France declared war on Germany.
At this time, the Queen Elizabeth Secondary School was being constructed, and from September to November Gillis and her classmates attended Newton Elementary School until the building was complete. Beginning in November of 1940 Gillis attended Queen Elizabeth (Q.E.) Secondary School on King George Highway, now King George Boulevard in Surrey. Gillis became involved in the school newspaper, ‘The Q.E. Vue’ and met several students from higher grades working on it, including Setsuko Fujii, Yoshi Okamura, and Yosh Nakamura.
In the wake of World War II and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gillis watched as her friends of Japanese Canadian descent were ordered, along with their families, to be interned away from the ‘security zone’ of within a 100 mile radius of the coastline.

Gillis and many of her classmates felt that this was unjust, and in 1942 she began regular correspondence with several of her Japanese Canadian friends and acquaintances. On V.E. day in May of 1945 Gillis celebrated with many of her female friends by wearing slacks to school; an offense for which they were suspended for the day.
Gillis continued at Queen Elizabeth until her graduation in June of 1945. The previous autumn her parents had a third child, Kenny Gillis, born in November of 1944.
Due to the lack of teachers following the war, the province waived the requirement for students to complete Senior Matriculation (Grade 13), and so Gillis went straight to the Provincial Normal School to train to become a teacher. This school was located at the Northwest corner of 12th avenue and Cambie Street in Vancouver, and she commuted there from her home in Surrey from September 1945 to June 1946.

Upon graduation she applied to teach in several school districts and was accepted by 3, including the Vancouver School District. She refused to work at Vancouver School District because they paid female teachers less than male, and instead accepted a position teaching Grade 2 in Parksville on Vancouver Island. Aged 18, Gillis taught here for one year, and then moved to the Maple Ridge District where she taught from 1947 to 1955. From 1950 to 1951 Gillis took a year off from teaching to obtain her Bachelor of Arts from University of British Columbia, which was required for her to teach high school. She also attended U.B.C. later in her career, completing a Masters of Education.
From 1955 to 1959 Gillis taught in Hope School District. Here she met her husband Joe Parolin, who had signed up for a French class Gillis was teaching. Gillis and Parolin married in 1963 and had two children, Peter, born in 1967, and Margaret, born in 1968. Gillis had moved to Surrey School District in 1959 and she taught there until her retirement in December 1984.

Gillis passed on March 10, 2019.

Custodial history

Scope and content

The fonds consists of the incoming correspondence to Joan Gillis from a group of young Japanese Canadians she met while attending Queen Elizabeth Secondary School in Surrey. The fonds includes 149 letters and 10 small photographs, referred to colloquially as ‘snaps’ in the letters, sent from a total of 13 different correspondents. The majority of the correspondence took place during 1942 to 1946, with different friends writing from farms and work camps in Northern British Columbia, Manitoba, and Alberta. The letters provide insight into the Japanese Canadian internment, which occurred against the backdrop of a larger cultural context. Since the early 1900s Japanese immigrants and persons of Japanese descent living in Canada were subject to racially targeted legislation, including limits on immigration, limits on fishing licenses, and being denied the right to vote based on racial status.

In the spring of 1941 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) fingerprinted and registered all Japanese Canadians over the age 16, who were required to carry identification cards until 1949. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, Canada declared war on Japan. The Royal Canadian Navy impounded the fishing boats of the Japanese Canadian fishing community, and within two months 1,200 Japanese Canadian owned boats were sold. On February 24th 1942 the federal government authorized the removal of all persons of Japanese origin, and gave the RCMP the power to search without warrant, to impose a dawn to dusk curfew, and to confiscate all cars, radios, firearms, and cameras. Mass forced dispersal and dispossession ensued, with all Japanese Canadians being sent to internment camps, to work on farms, and perform other forms of hard labor, living in very poor conditions through the much colder winters of Canada’s interior.
The letter-writers discuss their day-to-day life at the camps, living and working conditions, their new schools and teachers, and ask after Gillis’ life in Surrey and the on-goings at Queen Elizabeth (Q.E.) secondary school.
Gillis kept the correspondence bound in twine or ribbon, which is also included in the fonds. A government censor opened and read many, if not all of the letters, and many of the envelopes bear a sticker or stamp marking this. Many of the letters are hand-written, some are typed, and some are written on postcards. Listed at the file level is the full name of each correspondent and his or her specific geographical location.

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Physical condition

Materials are generally in excellent condition.

Immediate source of acquisition

All materials acquired from donor.


The creator kept the materials arranged by correspondent. The order in which they were arranged has been preserved by the archivist, and is reflected in the above description.

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A finding aid for the fonds complete to the item level is available in this database.

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No further accruals are expected.

General note

See Roy Miki fonds, File 28-1 for a letter from Joan Gillis to Roy Miki in regards to her collection of letters.

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The fonds was arranged, processed, and described by Claire Williams in May of 2018.

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Information derived from the following sources:

-Records within the fonds.

-“Letters from exiled teens rare peek into B.C.’s past” article by John Mackie in the Vancouver Sun, April 16 2018

-Biography written by Steve Turnbull in April 2018

-Joan Parolin (nee Gillis) Interview. August 8 1990. Surrey Museum and Archives. Surrey musuem and archvies transcript: 4784?sessionsearch

-The Sunday Leader “Letters from Afar” March 2nd, 2008 “Correspondence from interned Japanese-Canadian students shows ethnicity was of little importance for teens torn apart during wartime” by Steve Turnbull, “We Lost Our Friends” by Sheila Reynolds

-Japanese Canadian History Site:

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