Apology Accepted: BC Government offers apology for wartime conduct
Prior to World War II and the war in the Pacific, Tosh Suzuki’s parents grew strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb on 16 acres of land in Pitt Meadows. In 1942, when Tosh was seven years old, the farm was confiscated by the government and he and his family were sent to the sugar beet fields of Manitoba where they spent a total of nine seasons. Says Tosh, “My parents remained in virtual-internment mode until the end of the 1950 beet harvest season—more than five years after the war ended. My family experienced every physical hardship of sugar beet work.”
While most Japanese Canadians left the beet farms shortly after the war ended, Tosh’s family remained, unable to earn enough money from sugar beets. His two older sisters had to work in sugar beets as soon as they arrived in Manitoba and when Tosh was 11 years old, he also started to work in sugar beets. “We were taken out of school during beet season. Our father worked as a logger in northern Ontario during the winters. We did not see him for months on end.”
Finally, in 1950, with the contributions of the children, the Suzuki family recovered financially to the point where they could resettle in Surrey.
Say Tosh, “I was the fortunate one. I finished high school and attended UBC and graduated in engineering. I am retired now and reside with my wife Amy in Delta, BC. We raised two children and have four grandchildren. Amy and I are passionate about gardening. But, lately, it is becoming a physical challenge.”
Asked if his family expressed any bitterness at the way they were treated by their government, Tosh replies, “My parents did not show any bitterness throughout the war and after. They were essentially resigned to their plight. They did not sign up to go to Japan after the war. They saw no advantage in going back to a country where food and accommodation was short. Not long after we returned to BC, they applied for and obtained their Canadian citizenship papers. I was a teenager at the time and recall questioning their reasoning. I did not attend the ceremony, which was a proud moment for them.”
In the fall of 2011, after reading a story in the Vancouver Sun about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the ramifications it had for Japanese Canadians, Tosh began to press the BC Government for a formal apology for the role it played in the expulsion of Japanese Canadians from the coast. The cause was taken up by Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto and on Monday, May 7, 2012, Tosh, along with a small group of former internees, were present in the Legislature as Members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously passed a motion to issue a formal apology to Japanese Canadians for the injustices visited upon them during and after World War Two.
Asked about the value of addressing wrongs so long after the fact, Tosh responds, “You raise an interesting point about apologies. I am somewhat concerned that the community-at-large feels somewhat guilty when a government apologies for past wrongs. Often, it does not bring out the best from people; it is an emotional issue. Typical reactions include: What about what Japan did to us? There was a real fear and you can’t blame people for being worried, etc. Frankly, I myself am not immune and get caught up in the fallout. For that reason, I am pleased that the current apology was realized without much fanfare. I obviously thought it was worthwhile pursuing. In my cause, I simply stated facts. As for how to ensure the community-at-large feels at ease when a government apologies for long-past wrongs, I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. But, I think the community newspapers did an excellent job. Rather than dwell on the politics of the internment, the newspapers focused on our story. And that was a good thing.
Tosh and his wife Amy will be attending the Honorary Degree ceremony for UBC students of 1942 on May 30. “Because she attended UBC for one year and I graduated in 1958 with an engineering degree, we feel part of that community. That cause took a lot of work and it did not seem to come easy for Mary Kitagawa, who I don’t know. I congratulate her on all that she has accomplished.”
THE CAMPAIGN TO SECURE AN APOLOGY
by Tosh Suzuki
On November 11, 2011, Vancouver Sun writer Stephen Hume wrote an article titled “A day that will live in infamy,” about the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This inspired me in the first place to seek an apology. His account of how Pearl Harbor impacted the lives of Japanese Canadians reminded me of my own internment experience, even though I was only seven years old at the time. On December 15, 2011, Surrey Leader writer Frank Bucholtz wrote a column “ A vital part of our history” about Pearl Harbor and how it impacted Japanese Canadians. He noted the role of the BC government (and others) of the day in the Federal decision to intern Japanese Canadians. The historical facts confirm his observation. Without the active prodding from the BC government of the day, the Federal government essentially had no case to intern Japanese Canadians. Because the Federal government issued a formal apology together with redress in 1988, a formal BC government could only be made for a different reason. The notion that the BC government of the day was complicit in the Federal internment decision provided the rationale to support the cause for an apology. To its credit, the BC government recognized that role in its apology motion and statement.
On November 18, 2100, Minister Yamamoto’s office responded to my rather benign request for the “exact wording” of a BC government apology in respect of the internment of Japanese Canadians. I was told that while the Federal government issued an apology in 1988, there was no record of any similar apology from the BC government. That revelation was not a surprise to me; but it provided an opportunity for me to initiate a conversation and I sent a follow-up email stating, in part:
“Thank you for researching my inquiry in respect of an apology by the BC Legislature to Japanese Canadians for past injustices imposed upon them during World War Two. From your information and my limited research, it would appear that the BC government or the BC Legislature has yet to acknowledge such injustices and apologize accordingly.
“In May 2008, the BC Legislature formally apologized to the Indo-Canadian community for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914 when that ship was prevented from discharging some 376 immigrants from India. This apology was made on the 94th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident. While the apology to the Indo Canadian community was clearly justified, an apology to the Japanese Canadians, in my view, is equally deserved.
“As you are aware, 2012 will mark the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of over 20,000 Japanese Canadians from coastal British Columbia after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I was seven years old at the time.
“While an apology from the BC government and the BC Legislature is long overdue, there is still time to offer an apology while survivors of the evacuation are still alive. The year 2012 would seem to be most fitting for that occasion. We should not have to wait for the 94th anniversary.
“Additionally, it would be most appropriate, if you—as the first Japanese Canadian to be elected to the BC Legislature—spearheaded this initiative.
“I hope you will commit to this endeavour and opportunity. I am sure that all fellow Japanese Canadians will be grateful.”
To ensure that I was not covering old ground, so as to speak, I sent emails to several members of the Japanese Canadian community asking if they were aware of any on-going campaign to secure an apology from the BC government. I also said that I had written an email proposal to Minister Yamamoto suggesting an apology. The response I received was that while earlier attempts were made to secure an apology, no such initiative was underway at the present. I felt reasonably confident that the broad community was ready to support something like an apology but the push had to originate from someone within the Japanese Canadian community (an internment survivor). The timing was right for an apology. But, was there enough time?
Because I received no acknowledgment that my email was received by Minister Yamamoto’s office, I continued to resend my original email (three times) until Minister Yamamoto’s office officially confirmed on February 28, 2012 that my email had been received. On March 4, 2102 I was informed that “the Intergovernmental Relations Secretariat was in receipt of my emails… and are researching the matter.“
This was good news but I began to worry that the window of opportunity for a formal apology was closing rapidly. Since fall sessions are a rarity in BC, the spring session of the legislature would provide the only opportunity for an apology in this year—the 70th anniversary of the internment. I was cognizant of the fact that Minister Yamamoto would need to steer the apology initiative through the caucus, cabinet and the Official Opposition party as well as the independent members. I was of the view that an apology would not be meaningful unless all parties and members unanimously endorsed the initiative.
On March 20, 2012 I sent a letter to MLA Guy Gentner (NDP-North Delta) to engage his help to make an apology a reality. He telephoned me a few days later to express his full support for my initiative. I found MLA Gentner to be very well-informed on the history of Japanese Canadians in his riding, as well as the internment—citing many names I had never heard of. He visited me at my home and pledged to work with Minister Yamamoto. In his words, “It is long overdue.” The following week, he reported that MLA Adrian Dix (NDP Leader) and his caucus were 100 percent behind a formal apology.
During the same week, Minister Yamamoto called me to tell me that she was working very hard on my proposal. I was encouraged by Minister Yamamoto’s comment: “I don’t want to build your hopes up, but . . .” Since that was my first conversation with the minister, I reiterated the main points of my proposal. We agreed on all the issues surrounding an apology. I felt comfortable that we had an understanding that I was not asking for an apology for the internment itself because that was a Federal decision. The key point was that the BC government of the day was complicit in the Federal decision. I was pleased to hear that she had already spoken to Premier Clark. However, as the weeks passed by, I began to worry again—perhaps, needlessly.
During the afternoon of May 4, 2012, the phone rang. I saw “Province of BC” on our Call Display and picked up the phone. It was Minister Yamamoto and I think she said, “We’re going to do it on Monday afternoon.” To be truthful, I don’t remember my response, but I hope I thanked her. I confirmed that Amy and I would be pleased to attend a reception in her office at noon and witness the apology scheduled later in the afternoon in the Legislature. The next call came from Mark Knudsen, her Executive Assistant, who asked me for a statement to be included in a press release scheduled for Monday. There was no official announcement of the pending apology. I sent out a few emails to family and a few friends with a discrete “heads up” notice of what I described as an “historic event of interest to Japanese Canadians scheduled to take place on Monday, May 7, 2102. Tune into the Legislative Channel at 1:30 pm…”
On Monday, May 7, 2012, a small group of former internees, which included Amy and I, was honoured to witness the Members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia unanimously pass a motion to issue a long-overdue apology to Japanese-Canadians. Minister Yamamoto introduced the apology motion and read a statement that unequivocally acknowledged the role of the BC government in the Federal decision to intern Japanese-Canadians during ww2. MLA Adrian Dix, NDP leader, spoke in support of the motion. All of us were moved by their sincere statements. They spoke from the heart.
Minister Yamamoto is to be applauded for spearheading the apology through the Legislature. I thank MLA Adrian Dix (NDP Leader) and MLA Guy Gentner (NDP-North Delta), as well as all members of the legislature for their unanimous support. I forwarded a letter of appreciation to Hon. Bill Barisoff, Speaker. The community newspapers, both print and digital editions, provided excellent coverage of the event and told our stories to thousands of readers.
As for myself, I was ecstatic that my campaign for an apology progressed relatively smoothly and was realized in less than six months. It actually took only two months after my proposal was officially acknowledged by the government in early March. It is amazing what can sometimes be achieved by an individual through email. But, in reality, this is what democracy is about. Each of us has the right and opportunity to express our opinions and we can try and make a difference. I did that and it paid off in spades.
I hope the Japanese Canadian community will rejoice and celebrate that a long-overdue apology from the BC Legislature was realized. So much time has passed that many Japanese Canadians, who were impacted by the internment, are no longer with us to experience this apology. They include our grandparents, fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, offspring and friends.