Japanese-Canadian Fighting for Justice

Canada is known as a country that's welcoming to immigrants, including many Japanese citizens who moved there before World War Two. What's not so widely recognized, however, is that Canadians of Japanese descent were subject to some of the worst kinds of discrimination during the war. Now, one 83-year-old Japanese-Canadian woman is fighting to educate younger generations to ensure that history can never be repeated.

Japanese immigration to Canada began in 1877, just ten years after the nation was formed. The newcomers, for the most part, worked outdoors in fishing and forestry. Before World War Two, Canada was home to more than 20,000 people of Japanese descent, living mainly in Vancouver.

But their situation changed drastically after war broke out. As a US ally, the Canadian government designated Japanese-Canadians as "enemy aliens" and sent them to internment camps.

And parliament rushed through legislation approving the confiscation of Japanese-Canadian property.

Japanese-Canadians were ordered to leave their homes. Everything they owned was confiscated, including their land, houses and belongings.

In the US, even though more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps, the government there gave them the right to hold on to their own property.

We are not animals

We met with a Canadian woman of Japanese descent who teaches at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in the history of the Japanese-Canadians.

83-year-old Mary Kitagawa is a third generation Japanese-Canadian. Her life coincides with the history of discrimination suffered by the Japanese-Canadians. She was born in 1934 on Salt Spring Island on the Canadian West Coast. Her parents kept chickens for a living and had six children.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the family was exiled to an internment camp on a livestock farm. Mary still remembers the filth and squalor that surrounded them.

The family protested, saying they were not animals, but officials simply told them to sleep on the streets and took Mary's father away.

The family believed he was dead, until they finally met him in a different internment camp.

When the war ended, they were released from the camp after four years. But when they returned to their hometown, the white community was less than welcoming.

Mary says they were threatened by locals saying, "There's no place for you here. We'll throw you in the ocean." While they'd been interned, the graves of Japanese-Canadians had been vandalized.

Winning compensation

Mary got on with her life and moved to Vancouver, where she married a fellow Japanese-Canadian and had two children.

From around 1980, when Mary was in her late 40s and done raising her children, she joined the Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association. She took part in efforts to help win an apology and restore the honor of Japanese-Canadians who suffered during the war.

Their work led to an official apology by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988.

But Mary's quest did not stop there.

When we visited her in April, Mary was lecturing about Japanese-Canadian students who were forced to quit college and sent to internment camps during the war.

Mary told her class about the fact that Japanese-American university students who were forced to abandon their studies during the war eventually received honorary degrees from a US university around 2008.

Mary asked, "If the US can do this, why not Canada?"

She wrote to the dean of the University of British Columbia, asking about the possibility of arranging something similar. But the university said too much time had passed.

Media support

Mary refused to give up. She decided to try to win the understanding and support of the Japanese-Canadian community by writing an article for a community magazine. She wrote about how American and Canadian universities had responded so differently.

Her story was picked up by a local newspaper in Vancouver, which interviewed her and gave her a much wider audience.

Four years later, in 2012, the University of British Columbia finally awarded 76 former Japanese-Canadian students honorary degrees.

Mary looks back on how she was determined to right a wrong for the students of the past who saw their futures taken away.

She says one of them was in tears while thanking her for her efforts. The student said while there's nothing tangible to come from an honorary degree, the greatest happiness lies in being welcomed back by the university.

The present-day students in Mary's lecture said they had never heard about the story before and now wanted to learn more. Many said they were inspired by Mary's strength in seeking justice for others.

Return to the past

Canada, in 1971, became the first nation to officially adopt a multiculturalist policy of actively encouraging immigration. But an official apology for the discrimination against Japanese-Canadians took far longer.

Ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, there have been an increasing number of cases involving racism and hatred towards Muslims. While Canada now accepts about 300,000 immigrants annually, anti-Islam discrimination has become more visible.

Mary takes pride in Canada's multiculturalism and is worried about the situation.

Mary asked her students to speak out against racism. She said the vitriol directed against Muslim immigrants now mirrors the history of racism against Japanese-Canadians. What's happening now is a return to Canada's negative history.

Mary told the students they are all responsible for speaking up. Failing to do so equates to condoning racism.

And she has been calling on universities to start courses on the history of discrimination against immigrants.

She also wants high-school and junior high-school teachers to know more about the issue.

Never give up

As for what keeps her going in her quest for justice, Mary says: "I don't want anybody to experience the same kind of discrimination that I went through -- never again. My father was always telling me that I should never turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. His words are still alive in me."

At present, Canada is embracing immigration under the administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has said, "Diversity is Canada's strength."

Many of the minority groups, including Canadian-born people of Japanese descent, prefer not to make waves. That is why they have remained silent, unlike Mary.

She says she will continue her work until her final breath, not just for herself but also for people who have no voice.