Righting a 70-Year Wrong

Welcome Home. A Tribute to Japanese Canadian UBC Students of 1942

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, UBC is recognizing its own involvement in this lamentable story.

During May congregation, UBC granted honorary degrees to the 61 students who were unable to complete their university studies. An additional 15 students had 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 BC 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.

Although the Canadian government implemented internment, the role and responsibility of UBC regarding its Japanese Canadian students remains an uncomfortable question. Many U.S. universities protested the inclusion of Japanese American students in the forced removal, tried to place their students at other universities or supported the completion of their degrees during the internment.

This was not the case at UBC. Even before internment, Japanese Canadian students in the university’s Canadian Officers Training Corps (C.O.T.C) had their commissions stripped by the university’s Senate Committee on Military Education. Two UBC faculty members, Henry Angus and E.H. Morrow, were among the few who spoke out against the injustice.

Lives changed forever

Internment 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.

A Degree of Justice: Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942, tells the story of six former UBC students who were forcibly removed and exiled from the BC coast during the Second World War (length: 33:48).

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 US, 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 honorary degrees; initiatives to educate future students about this shameful period in history; and the Library’s task of preserving and bringing 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, the good news came too late; family members were invited to receive the degrees on their behalf. The 21 living students range in age between 89 and 96 and are scattered from Nanaimo to Ontario and beyond. One of them, Roy Oshiro, lives in Japan yet made the trip to Vancouver 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.”

 You can learn more about this story on UBC’s tribute site.



  1. V.L Hillman says:

    Good to read about. And a very worthwhile effort!!!

  2. Philip A. Jones says:

    Why did it take so long?

    1. Philip A. Jones says:

      I just watched the video with Mary Kitagawa. We all are indebted to Mary Kitagawa for her tremendous service and initiative to recognize our fellow Canadians whose lives were impacted through unjust legislation. I am glad that UBC has now helped to right that wrong.

  3. Ron McKerrow says:

    All Canadians owe a debt to Mary Kitagawa for her efforts to right a tragic wrong from our past. Although honorary degrees do not in any way make up for the injustice, it helps us all to recognize the events and to make sure that this piece of history is not lost but studied by UBC students in the future. Although a bit late, I am proud that my University has done what it can to right the wrong.

  4. Lorene Oikawa says:

    Thanks for sharing this story of injustice and the tremendous efforts of Mary Kitagawa and her husband Tosh who led this initiative to honour the Canadian students. When I was helping with this initiative I discovered I had a family connection. My mom’s cousin, Teruo Ted Harada who lives in Toronto, was one of the 76 students. He wasn’t able to attend the ceremony and he asked me to be his designate. I was very proud to accept his parchment and regalia at the May 30th ceremony. Thanks to UBC my alma mater for doing the right thing and having an inclusive, meaningful event for the Japanese Canadian community. Also, thanks for ensuring no one forgets and creating opportunities for learning with the archival documentation library project and the Asian Canadian studies program.

  5. Don Chutter says:

    I well remember the farewell statement of Lloyd Shimo-Takara as he left for a road-building work camp : “I never thought that I would be a “Roads Scholar”, but here I go!”

  6. Ron Crotogino says:

    Congratulations to Mary Kitagawa for her initiative and her persistence. I am very proud of my alma mater for its thoughtful response.

  7. David Iwaasa says:

    This tribute to the Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942 was much belated, but it was better that something was done than leaving this injustice unrecognized. It is also a reminder to all of us that no matter how small a minority, it is vital to stand up for the rights of others. Mary Kitagawa’s perseverence and hard work was critical to this event happening and I very much hope that she is recognized for her efforts.

  8. Norman Fawkes says:

    Why am I hearing about the Japanese Internee participation in the May 1912 Convocation just now, after the fact? I was born in 1922 in Vancouver in a house at 5th and Manitoba which at the time was at the center of a small Japanese community. In my 4th grade class in the nearby Simon Fraser Elementary Annex there were eleven Caucasians, one of them me, and nineteen Japanese, some of them my playmates, all Canadians by birth and fated to be interned. As a sheet metal worker apprentice in the spring of 1942, I happened to be employed on the installation of facilities to house the interned women and children at Hastings Park – I personally installed the makeshift toilet trough that some of them will remember. My dad had numerous Japanese friends and as a social activist assisted a number of them during the internment; he was warned by the RCMP to desist. After becoming a Professional Engineer, I studied the Japanese language which led me to work with Japanese companies on a number of significant projects. I visited Japan a dozen times on business during one of which visits I toured Japan as an employee of Mitsubishi. In view of the forgoing associations I am disappointed and upset, to say the least, that Alumni were not easily informed by email of the special ceremonies at the May Convocation that were to make amends to the few surviving Japanese internees. In view not only of your revealing introductory remark “a dark period of Canadian history – a period few Canadians fully understand or want to discuss” but also of your recount of the extensive discussions initiated by the Japanese in 2008 and prolonged by UBC until almost too late in 2012, I cannot help but suspect that compromises for the ceremony to be minimal and low key in all respects were made. It does appear to have been begrudged which, having been allowed at its highest level by unanimous motion of the University Senate, in my opinion was disgraceful. It mimics the same compromise with bigotry displayed when one of our UBC alumni, then a minor Minister of the Crown, installed a plaque with carefully begrudged wording acknowledging the Japanese internment – not on the Hastings Park grounds but on a civic sidewalk allowance on a Park side street. Some years later it was quietly moved into the Park. In my opinion, the Japanese internees are owed an apology from UBC in that the amends, such as they were, were finally forced by the imminent demise of the surviving Internees. Such demise would, indeed, have left UBC open to irrefutable accusations of bigotry without any possibility of believable redress. UBC can, however, take credit for what was done with apparent due dignity in spite of impediments but not for what could have been so much more appropriate.

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