The Story

Righting a 70-Year Wrong

Heather Amos

UBC honours Japanese Canadian students sent to internment camps

The treatment of Japanese Canadians and Japanese nationals during the Second World War is a dark period of Canadian history—a period few Canadians fully understand or want to discuss. Now‚ 70 years later, the University of British Columbia will recognize its own involvement in this lamentable story.

During May congregation, UBC will grant honorary degrees to the 61 students who were unable to complete their university studies. An additional 15 students will have their original degrees re-conferred; they missed their graduation ceremony when they were sent to internment camps in 1942.

“If these students had been allowed to continue living in their communities, then they would have finished their initial plans for education,” said Mary Kitagawa, a retired B.C. high school teacher who has led the campaign for UBC honorary degrees. “These people’s lives haven’t been completed in the way they had planned and that is the great injustice.”

In 1942, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King invoked the War Measures Act following the attack on Pearl Harbor, 21,000 Japanese Canadians were forced to leave their homes and the west coast for internment camps, prisoner of war camps, sugar beet farms and work-prison camps. Most had their property confiscated by the Canadian government. Many lost everything except what they could carry with them.

Lives changed forever

This disruption changed the course of UBC students’ lives. Few were able to complete their studies after the war because their family or financial circumstances no longer made this possible; others ended up at universities in eastern Canada.

In the United States, where similar events occurred, state governments and universities in California, Oregon and Washington have granted honorary degrees to their former students. Kitagawa followed closely developments in the U.S., and seeing the powerful impacts of these symbolic gestures on students and families, she first suggested in a 2008 letter that UBC follow suit.

“My parents instilled in us that if you see something wrong happening, we should voice our discontent,” said Kitagawa, who has spent her adult life in the Lower Mainland and is an active member of the Japanese Canadian community. “Someone had to speak out for these students.”

A three-year journey

From the time Kitagawa’s letter was received, UBC was eager to take action. But as often happens, this simple concept turned out to be a complex undertaking. For members of the Japanese Canadian community, the months of inquiry, meetings and deliberations felt like an eternity.

“One of UBC’s mistakes was that we didn’t bring the wider community into our planning and discussions right away,” said Henry Yu, a UBC history professor.

Kitagawa’s letter was discussed by the Senate Tributes Committee, the body responsible to decide how UBC ought to respond. A task force was set up to determine whether the university would opt for individual recognition, or for a larger initiative.

“To make an individual recognition ceremony possible, the UBC Senate had to create a new form of honorary degree that would not duplicate the original degrees that some of the students had been granted, and that allowed for some flexibility in our usual process,” said Sally Thorne, chair of the Senate Tributes Committee.

When the motion for this special honorary degree was brought to the University Senate, it received unanimous approval.

And then, there was the list

To complicate matters, the university did not have an official record of the UBC students affected by the internment.

Fortunately for UBC, Kitagawa, her husband Tosh and other members of the Japanese Canadian community took on the task of finding and identifying those students. Through news media and word of mouth, the couple almost single-handedly reached out to the community, asking former students or relatives to contact them.

“They produced this remarkable list that identified the students who had been forced to leave,” said Alden E. Habacon, director of Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development at UBC. “We were able to check that list with our enrolment records but we would never have been able to produce that list without the community.”

Recognizing the students

In November 2011, the UBC Senate approved three measures to recognize what happened to the UBC students: the students will be awarded honorary degrees in May, the university will develop initiatives to educate future students about this shameful period in history, and the Library will preserve and bring to life the historical record of that time.

“These students earned the right to study at UBC and purely by virtue of their ancestry, that right was taken away,” said Shirley Nakata, UBC’s Ombudsperson for Students and the Co-Chair along with Habacon of the university committee charged with implementing the Senate’s three measures.

“The convocation is about honouring these students, acknowledging what was lost and formally welcoming them to the UBC Alumni family.”

“I’m very pleased with the outcome, especially for the students,” said Kitagawa. “When I told them the news, they were so happy. Some students said they never expected this to happen in their lifetime.”

For many of the 76 students who will receive degrees in May, the good news came too late; family members have been invited to receive the degrees on their behalf. The 22 living students range in age between 89 and 96 and are scattered from Nanaimo to Ontario and beyond. One man lives as far away as Japan and yet, he is planning to make the trip in May with his two daughters.

Going beyond honorary degrees

Part of UBC’s acknowledgement of what happened in 1942 is the UBC Library project to collect and archive stories from individual students, to document how their lives were forever altered because of what happened. The Library will also digitize a national Japanese Canadian newspaper from the time.

In addition, UBC’s Faculty of Arts will soon be launching an Asian Canadian Studies program. Courses will explore the importance of Japanese Canadians and other Asian Canadians in the country’s history, including the role played by anti-Asian racism in producing events such as the Japanese Canadian internment.

“I am proud that UBC is making broader commitments to rethink our curriculum and academic programs, and to archive a part of this history; we are going a step further than simply awarding degrees,” said UBC President Prof. Stephen Toope.

“As a university, we aim to create a more compassionate and thoughtful environment where students, faculty and staff can act as global citizens and we do this by recognizing injustice and taking steps to learn from it,” he said.

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