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Mary Kitagawa’s Speech presented at the University of British Columbia

Delta, British Columbia’s Keiko Mary Kitagawa, 77, has lead the remarkable effort over the past few years to convince the University of British Columbia that the 76 Nisei who were not able to complete their degrees because of the 1942 internment deserved to get honorary degrees.

Kitagawa was initially moved to begin this Canada-wide effort when she becoming aware that American west coast universities were awarding honorary degrees to their students of Japanese ancestry who could not complete their degrees because of internment during World War Two.

Mary’s (nee Murakami) own family story is a poignant one. Born on Salt Spring Island, B.C., she has three sisters and two brothers. Her mother, Kimiko Okano Murakami (1904-1997), was the first Japanese Canadian baby born in Steveston, BC. After an arranged marriage in Japan, her father immigrated to Canada in 1926. They operated a profitable farming business on Salt Spring Island until March 1942 when the family was separated and sent into exile.

Her father, Katsuyori, was sent to Yellowhead Pass, a ‘work camp’ for Japanese Nationals. Beginning in the barns of Hastings Park, her mother and siblings were forced to live at nine different camps until the family was reunited on a sugar beet farm in Alberta. The family returned to Salt Spring Island in 1954.

Mary Kitagawa

Mary delivered the following speech at a UBC Symposium on March 21st, entitled: “Addressing Injustice: UBC’s Response to the Internment of Japanese Canadian Students – Then and Now”.

This year’s historic UBC Convocation will recognize the 76 Nisei whose university education was ‘interrupted’ in 1942. The ceremony will be held on May 30th and be broadcast live at different locations across Canada.

* * *

My quest to get special honorary degrees for the 1942 Japanese Canadian students attending UBC happened by accident. As I was surfing the net one day, I came upon an article about the University of Washington granting honorary degrees to Japanese American students who were expelled in 1942. These students, wearing cap and gown were presented with a diploma in person or posthumously during a regular convocation ceremony. I viewed a video of the ceremony and saw the happy faces of the elderly recipients and family members of students who had passed away. 

This gave me incentive to do more research on this topic.  I discovered that all of the universities along the US Pacific coast (Washington, Oregon and California) were doing or had done the same thing. To get more information, I wrote to several university contacts in Washington and California. They helped by directing me to view other ceremonies on the web and to read about how each university went about honouring their former students. 

They also gave me ideas on how to go about finding out what happened at UBC during that period. There was nothing on the UBC website about this topic, so on May 22, 2008, I wrote to President and Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope inquiring about the possibility of UBC doing the same for the Japanese Canadian students. He passed the letter on to the Chair of the UBC Senate Tributes Committee. I received a discouraging letter from her informing me that UBC unlike the universities south of the boarder did not expel the students of Japanese descent. Therefore, UBC will not be granting honorary degrees to this small subset of people affected by political and social decisions of that time.

She also stated that students, faculty and staff of Japanese heritage left UBC for many reasons. When I read those words, I realized that she did not know our history.  There could not have been any faculty or staff at UBC at that time. The 1895 amendment to the British Columbia elections act, forbade all Asians from being on the voters list. In order to be eligible to practice in the professions in BC, one had to be on the voters list. Therefore, the Asians were doomed to work only in the four primary industries; farming, fishing, logging and mining even if you graduated at the top of the class from UBC.

When US President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt signed executive order 6099, he took away the civil rights of 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Nationals. They were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to concentration camps. In Canada, the War Measures Act invoked by the William Lyon McKenzie King’s government followed the American lead and removed 22,000 innocent Canadians of Japanese descent from the coast to prison work camps by separating the men from their young families, sugar beet fields of the prairies, confinement camps and Prisoner of War camps in Ontario. The 76 UBC students were not exempted from this mass removal.

There was a difference, in how the universities in the US and UBC reacted to the expulsion. In the US, the Presidents and members of all of the faculties of the universities protested loudly to the US Government, the inclusion of their students in Executive Order 6099. 

When that effort failed, the Presidents of the universities sent their faculty members to the camps to help their students write their final exams so that they could graduate or get credit for the year they were in. Arrangements were also made for many students to register at universities outside of the exclusion zone of the three coastal States. 

At UBC, very few spoke out for the students. Two exceptions were Economics professor Henry Angus who spoke out against the expulsion of the students and Commerce professor E.H. Morrow who advocated for his students by helping them write their final exams at other educational facilities outside of BC. He also wrote to eastern universities on their behalf but most would not accept them. In Ken Adachi’s book, The Enemy that Never Was, it is stated that, “McGill University barred Japanese Canadian students on the frank contention that serfs of an inferior race deserve no education”.

Dr. Elaine Bernard currently of Harvard University, while studying for her Master’s degree at the University of Alberta in 1977, wrote a paper called, "A University at War: Japanese Canadians at UBC during World II". She stated there were 49 male Japanese Canadian students registered in the Canadian Officers Training Corp. In January of 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they were summarily dismissed by the Senate Committee on Military Education. 

These senior UBC administrators sided with the racist voices outside the gates of UBC and pushed these students out. They were President L.S. Klink, Chancellor R.E. McKechnie, Dean J.N Finlayson, Mr. B. Wood, Mr. Edward McBride and Lt. Col. Gordon Shrum. This was an example of the failure of leadership at the university that made scapegoats of these Japanese Canadian UBC students. They were shocked and devastated that UBC, the symbol of truth and enlightenment had bowed to the pressures of hostilities boiling outside of their campus. They always only thought of themselves as Canadians and wondered what their crime was. They were never charged and were never allowed to defend themselves. Shortly after, according to Adachi, “The UBC Dean of Women had gathered the Japanese Canadian women students together to explain to them that the UBC will not assist them to remain in Vancouver and continue their education”.

In the US, the State Governments stepped in to make it possible for all universities to confer honorary degrees to their former Japanese American students. I thought that the BC government could do the same. I wrote to George Abbot Minister of Education who passed my letter onto Naomi Yamamoto, Minister for Advance Education. She informed me that the BC Government does not interfere with UBC affairs. I then wrote to Michelle Mungall, NDP Critic for Advanced Education. She was most helpful in finding out what the Senate appointed Task Force was actually doing and informed me of its progress. There was some movement but not enough. 

Hoping to speed up the process, I started a letter writing campaign to have the wider community support my cause. People from across the nation began writing to the Tributes Committee and the President‘s office. I felt that this process was taking effect. However, I thought that I needed more people to help with this cause so I began a petition, getting signatures from all across Canada. I have hundreds of names stored in my cupboard.

Still, I was not receiving any communications from the Tributes Committee so I decided to contact the media. First, I went to the Nikkei Voice, a Japanese Canadian publication originating in Toronto. In the article I explained what I was seeking and gave the history of how the Americans had dealt with the issue. That publication brought many names of the 1942 JC UBC students or relatives to our desk. It was a beginning of the process that would last many months. 

I also wrote to the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association Bulletin, a Vancouver publication that brought in several more contacts. At this time, I thought it best to go seek wider publicity. I contacted Patricia Graham, Editor in Chief of the Vancouver Sun at that time, now VP Digital. I had met her at a Women’s Conference in Victoria in 2010 where I was one of the speakers. She thought that this topic was newsworthy so she agreed to have it published. 

Gerry Bellett, her reporter, wrote a half page column on August 22nd 2011 after interviewing me and several people including a former student. From that article, I received many requests for interviews from other newspapers such as The Globe and Mail and several radio stations. The articles in the student run campus newspaper the Ubyssey gave me hope because the editor and reporters understood the rightness of our cause and supported us. I was happy to have this topic out in the public domain.

On October 5, 2011, I received an update from President Toope’s office on the process by which UBC was determining how best to honour Japanese Canadian students whose education was disrupted in 1942. I was informed that a working group struck by the UBC Senate Tributes Committee in 2010 was in the final stages of working out details of a three prong plan that would include providing personal recognition for the 76 former UBC students, initiative to educate future UBC students about this dark episode and for the UBC Library to preserve and bring to life the historical record.

When a request came to have me send the list of the 1942 Japanese Canadian students to the President office, I knew that a decision was near at hand. An agenda was posted on the UBC Senate website for its November 16, 2011 meeting where I saw as the last item, a mention of honorary degrees for Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942. 

I felt anxious for a while because I did not know how the voting would go. However, I received an email from the President’s office moments after the Senate decision was made informing me through the media release that what I was seeking had come to pass. I felt relieved and happy for the Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942. They were finally being acknowledged and were going to be welcomed home to UBC, the university from where they were so cruelly swept away 70 years ago. 

By making this decision, UBC has restored the bond that was broken between her former students and the university in 1942. It also helped to validate the students’ sense of self-worth, dignity and honour. Through courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, they endured and survived. By picking up the broken pieces of their lives, they rebuilt and continued to be exemplary Canadian citizens. I hope that UBC, a symbol of truth and enlightenment will continue to stand for justice and human rights, now and into the future. The lessons learned by UBC from the experiences of the 1942 Japanese Canadian UBC students should never be forgotten again.

I would like to thank all the people of conscience who helped anonymously behind the scene to bring this cause to this noble end. Because you believed in the nobility of justice and acted, the 1942 Japanese Canadian students will be able to enjoy this gift that you have given them; the May 30, 2012 graduation ceremony when they will finally receive a degree from UBC.

© 2012 Norm Ibuki

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