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On St. Patrick’s Day, 1942, Mary Kitagawa watched in horror as police snatched her father from their family home on Salt Spring Island.
It was a terrifying experience for the seven-year-old.
“As a child, you see this RCMP officer, you see this gun, and then you think what are they going to do to him? Are they going to shoot him? Will we ever see him again?
“I don’t know how my mother dealt with this, but I’m sure every cell on her body must have been exploding in pain.”
The traumatic event marked the beginning of a dark period in Canadian history. Kitagawa (née Murakami) and her family were among the 22,000 Japanese-Canadians placed in internment camps in British Columbia and Western Canada following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour.
Seventy years later, the Tsawwassen resident, now 77, is working to right the historical wrongs done against the Japanese-Canadian community. Most recently, she led a campaign to get UBC to grant honorary degrees to the Japanese-Canadian students who were forced to abandon their studies when they were interned during the Second World War.
“I felt that an injustice was done and there were no voices speaking out for these people. And I thought, well, if no one’s going to speak out for them, I will.”
Degree of justice
On May 30, Kitagawa, her husband, Tosh, their children and grandchildren sat in the audience during an emotional and long-awaited convocation ceremony at UBC. Honorary degrees were conferred on the 61 Japanese-Canadian students who were unable to complete their education as planned, and degrees were re-conferred on the 15 students who completed their studies, but missed their graduation ceremony when they were exiled from their homes.
It took three years of relentless lobbying before Kitagawa and fellow members of the Japanese-Canadian community finally convinced the university’s senate to approve the special degrees in November 2011.
Then the real work came.
Kitagawa and her husband were tasked with identifying and tracking down the students of 1942. After countless hours of phone calls, emails and meetings, all but two of the 76 interned students—or their living relatives—were contacted.
Kitagawa said it was a “hallelujah moment” for everybody when she relayed the good news.
“They didn’t scream, but I think they were screaming in their hearts,” Kitagawa said. “I have a feeling that in their minds, they were hoping that UBC would call them and say ‘Come on back.’”
Joining the alumni
UBC president Stephen Toope called the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War “one of the great historical injustices in Canadian History.”
“I think we have an opportunity now to use the resources of the university to help redress that wrong—and it was a fundamental wrong. The internment meant that UBC students in particular were forced to leave their studies. These were often really committed students who were working very, very hard and had done nothing to justify this action,” he said prior to the convocation ceremony.
“I think that the sad thing for the university is that so few people stood up in their defense.”
In addition to granting the honorary degrees, Toope said the university also plans to create programming and curriculum to keep the memory of what happened alive.
Mits Sumiya, one of the 22 still-living students from 1942, reacted to his honorary degree in an interview with the university.
“For me it’s a closure to an open-ended situation because here I was going to university, I was going to get my degree, I was going to start my life that way and it was disrupted,” he said.
At 90-years-old, Sumiya said the degree does nothing for his professional life or financial standing.
“But what it does mean to me is that the university has opened its arms and said ‘Come back, you’re part of our group, our alma mater.’ It’s like saying ‘Come on home.’”
For Kitagawa, collecting the biographies from the students—who ranged in age from 89 to 96 years old—and their surviving relatives was one of the most rewarding parts of the project.
“The wonderful thing about this event, or this journey, for us, was getting to know so many wonderful people on the other end of the phone line,” she said.
Kitagawa could relate to the many stories she gathered by phone and email.
Shortly after her father was taken, her mother, four siblings and herself were shipped off to the livestock barns at Hastings Park in Vancouver.
“As you’re progressing toward the building, you could smell the urine and feces. And we were told that we had to go and live there,” she recalls.
There was no toilet, no shower, no privacy. Internees were fed food so poor that many suffered bouts of diarrhea and food poisoning.
After two months, Kitagawa and her family were packed onto a train bound for Greenwood, B.C. It was there they learned their father was at a work camp in Yellowhead Pass. They were told they could be reunited if they agreed to work on a sugar beet farm in Alberta.
“So of course, we wanted to reunite the family, so we agreed to go to Magrath, Alberta, because that’s where my grandparents were shipped,” Kitagawa said.
The family was whole again, after four months of separation, but conditions in Magrath were deplorable. The two parents and five children lived in a fly-infested shack next to a pig pen and drank water from the same pond as the cattle.
The family was shuffled around several times after this, eventually ending up in Roseberry, B.C. where, during the frigid winter months, their bedding would freeze to the walls overnight.
It was here they got word that their agricultural property on Salt Spring had been sold without consent.
“It was sold for almost a pittance,” Kitagawa said. “We had no power to do anything.”
When the war ended in 1945, the interned Japanese were not welcome to return to their homes on the B.C. coast.
“They (government) gave my parents a choice, which I would call an ultimatum. Go east of the Rockies or be repatriated to Japan.”
Determined to return to Salt Spring, but lacking money, the family ended up running a restaurant in Cardston, Alberta for five years.
On her mother’s 50th birthday, they went back to their Gulf Island home. But they were met with an icy reception. Residents did not want them as neighbours; the Anglican church—where Kitagawa and her siblings had been baptized—banned them from the congregation; and the local RCMP made it clear police services did not apply to them.
“And that was frightening, because who was going to protect us?”
Her parents managed to secure some scrub land with their savings and start a farm from scratch.
“They were determined that they’re going to succeed and send all their children to university because education was so important to them,” Kitagawa said.
She eventually earned her bachelors degree from the University of Toronto and her teaching degree from UBC. She taught high school in Vancouver and Delta, married, had two children and built a house in Tsawwassen 42 years ago.
The honorary degrees campaign is not the first project Kitagawa has undertaken and it won’t be the last.
A member of the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association human rights committee, Kitagawa was also instrumental in changing the name of a 19-storey Canadian federal government office building in downtown Vancouver in 2007. It was originally named in honour of former Cabinet Minister Howard Charles Green. But the Japanese-Canadian community raised concern about Green’s racist attitude during the internment years, and the government renamed the building after Douglas Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian member of Parliament.
Currently, members of the JCCA are lobbying the Vancouver Parks Board to create a memorial at Hastings Park “so that people know that once upon a time human beings were incarcerated in the agricultural barns,” Kitagawa said.
“It wasn’t fun and games like it is now. It was a terrible, terrible experience.”