UBC to grant honorary degrees to interned Japanese Canadians, create Asian Canadian Studies program

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      They have worked their way into key industries, due to lower living and labour standards. They multiply rapidly. Even though they are in Canada, they speak only their native tongue.

      These were just some of the points that The Ubyssey's news editor Jack Ferry made in a column entitled "More Than One Man's Opinion", published on January 12, 1942.

      He was referring to the "Japs". Or the "Japanese Problem". This was shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, when the loyalty of Japanese Canadians was being questioned.

      We may scoff at such sentiments now as outdated. Unfortunately, variations of these points continue to be expressed about various ethnic groups and immigrants in Vancouver and Canada to this day, on the internet.

      It's all the more reason why lessons from the past cannot be forgotten.

      Vancouverite Keiko Mary Kitagawa knows about the importance of learning from the injustices of the past. And doing something about it.

      Kitagawa spearheaded a three-year campaign to get UBC to grant honorary degrees for Japanese Canadian UBC students who could not finish their education due to the Internment (the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the B.C. coast in 1942).

      At a symposium at UBC called Addressing Injustice: UBC's Response to the Internment of Japanese Canadian Students—Then and Now on March 21, Kitagawa explained that she was inspired to pursue her quest to get honorary degrees for these students "by accident".

      She said she was surfing the internet one day when she came upon an article about the University of Washington granting honorary degrees to Japanese American students who were expelled in 1942.

      "I discovered that all of the universities along the U.S. Pacific Coast—Washington, Oregon, and California—were doing, or had done, the same thing," she said.

      She said there was a marked difference between how American and Canadian universities responded to the proposed Internment. According to Kitagawa, the U.S. universities protested the evacuation of their students. When that failed, American university presidents sent their faculty members to the internment camps to help their students write their final exams so they could graduate, or arrangements were made for students to register at other universities outside the exclusion zone.

      In contrast, there was hardly any protest at UBC on behalf of Japanese Canadian students, with two main exceptions: economics professor Henry Angus and commerce professor E. H. Morrow.

      Consequently, 76 Japanese Canadian students had to leave UBC.

      "They [the students] were shocked and devastated that UBC, the symbol of truth and enlightenment, had bowed to the pressures of hostilities boiling outside of their campus," Kitagawa said. "They only thought of themselves as Canaidans, and wondered what their crime was. They were never charged, and never allowed to defend themselves."

      (Although Kitagawa wasn't one of the 76 students who had to leave UBC, she was interned and later attended the University of Trinity College in Toronto and earned her teaching credentials at UBC.)

      On May 22, 2008, Kitagawa wrote to UBC to inquire if the institution would grant honorary degrees like the American universities were doing. She received a letter stating that UBC, unlike the American universities, did not expel Japanese Canadian students, therefore UBC would "not be granting honorary degrees to this small subset of people affected by political and social decisions of that time".

      Undaunted and determined, Kitagawa pressed on with her campaign by writing to the B.C. government, starting a letter-writing campaign, gathering signatures for a petition, and garnering Japanese Canadian community support and media attention.

      On November 16, 2011, Kitagawa's prayers were finally answered. She was informed that UBC would in fact be granting the honorary degrees. The degrees will be bestowed on May 30 at a convocation ceremony. Out of the 76 students that had to leave, 21 students are still alive.

      Kitagawa told the Georgia Straight that when she heard the news, even though she was relieved and happy, she also "felt exhausted" from her efforts.

      So what kept her going?

      "I'm stubborn," she said. "I'm very much like my parents were: when you start something, you go right to the end. I wasn't going to let go because I was always thinking about the students. And if I didn't do anything, they would've been forgotten people. And I didn't want them to be forgotten."

      But UBC didn't just stop at doing the bare minimum either.

      The granting of honorary degrees was only one part of a three-pronged plan unanimously voted upon by the UBC Senate. UBC will also be creating educational initiatives and historical records, including an archival collection and the recording of oral history, related to Japanese Canadian history at UBC.

      What's more, UBC Dean of Arts Gage Averill announced that the university will be creating an Asian Canadian Studies minor program in honour of the 76 Japanese Canadian UBC students. The interdisciplinary program, with courses in history, literature, sociology, and more, will begin community consultations this spring (both on and off campus) in the hopes of launching the program in 2013.

      "We indeed honour all those who have had to struggle to make a life for themselves and for their families and their communities in Canada, a struggle that should have been so much easier…. But I also hope it's a means of honouring the vibrancy, the creativity, the resilience, and the enormous contributions of Asian Canadian communities, and especially those in British Columbia."

      He explained that the program is being created that "so that future generations will better understand that a just and equitable society requires continuous struggle and, really, continual vigilance."

      The 1942 Japanese Canadian UBC Students Fund is being created to support community-based research of the forthcoming Asian Canadian Studies program. More information will be available at the fund website.

      Other speakers at the symposium included moderator and UBC director of intercultural understanding strategy development Alden Habacon, First Nations House of Learning elder-in-residence Larry Grant, author Stanley Fukawa, Simon Fraser University professor Roy Miki, University of Victoria professor John Price, UBC history professor Henry Yu, and many more.

      More information about UBC's initiatives can be found at the UBC website.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.



      Mark Fornataro

      Mar 23, 2012 at 10:30am

      Good for UBC .Its about time.


      Mar 23, 2012 at 11:52am

      FUnny how, as Canadians, we can commit Genocide against a whole race of people and perpetuate it in law and society for over a century (the Aboriginal People of Canada) and give them nothing while compensating and rectifying the situation for another ethnic group which was victimized for only a few years. Seems like an unequal situation to me......
      Just saying.......