Art Miki: a life in service
Like many other Canadians of Japanese descent, Art Miki’s life trajectory was forever altered by the wartime removal and relocation from the west coast of all Japanese Canadians. Born in Vancouver in 1936, he was five years old when his parents and grandparents, wanting to keep the family together, chose to relocate to a sugar beet farm in Ste. Agathe, a French-speaking community 40 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
Following the lifting of the wartime restrictions on Japanese Canadians, the family remained in Manitoba and Art attended both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, where he received a graduate degree in education. He went on to a career in education, working as an elementary school teacher and then a principal until his retirement in 1993.
With a longtime interest in human rights and social justice issues, Art took over the presidency of the National Association of Japanese Canadians in 1984. As President he helped spearhead the four-year drive for Redress from the Canadian government for the treatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, a goal that was achieved with a signed agreement on September 22, 1988.
Following the Redress settlement, Art served as a director on the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation that was established in 1989 to administer the $12 million fund that was a critical element of the settlement.
Although the Redress battle and eventual settlement thrust Art onto the national stage, he has stayed true to his Manitoba roots and he has remained active at a local level. He served as president of the Manitoba Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association, as vice-president of the Manitoba Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and is a founder and President of the Asian Heritage Society of Manitoba.
Understanding that what the Japanese Canadians went through before and during the War was just one part of the larger immigrant experience, Art has dedicated a considerable amount of time promoting positive race relations and greater understanding between peoples. He is the former vice-chairperson and now advisor to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation located in Toronto. He also spent a rewarding ten years as Citizenship Judge for Manitoba and Saskatchewan between 1998 and 2008.
In 1991, in recognition of his years of community service, Art received this country’s highest recognition when he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In October 1999, he received an Honourary Doctorate degree from the University of Winnipeg.
Art is the author of Japanese Canadian Redress Legacy: A Community Revitalized (2003) and co-author of Shaku of Wondrous Grace: Through the Garden of Yoshimaru Abe (2007).
On July 12, 2012, Art Miki was among fourteen Manitobans who received the Order of Manitoba at the Legislative Building in a ceremony presided over by Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee, the chancellor of the order. He spoke to The Bulletin by e-mail from his home in Winnipeg.
INTERVIEW: Art Miki
Can you talk about the history of your family in Canada Art?
Both my grandparents came from Japan at the turn of the last century. On my mother’s side Tokusaburo and Yoshi Ooto came from Fukuoka in 1903, landed in Victoria and journeyed up to the Prince Rupert area. They lived in Port Ossington across the bay from Prince Rupert at a fishing cannery where many Japanese women worked. My grandfather was a fisherman and later become an employment broker for the fishing company, recruiting Japanese to work on boats or in the cannery. My mother, Shizuko, was born in Port Ossington and lived there with her two brothers. As the children – Tameo, Shizuko and Takeo – were of school age the grandparents decided to move the family south in order to have better schooling. Relocating to the Fraser Valley, my grandfather established a berry and fruit farm in Haney in 1918. They had this farm until 1942 when they were forcibly removed from Haney.
On my father’s side, my grandparents, the Shintanis, came to Canada, I believe, in 1892. Unfortunately, when grandfather’s wife passed away in 1897 he took his small daughter to Japan where she died. He migrated back to Canada as a single man and became a naturalized Canadian as Yukutaro Shintani, working in a saw mill in West Vancouver. He returned to Japan to marry Kiyo Miki through an arrangement. Both the Shintani and Miki families were from Karita. On marriage Yukutaro changed his name to Miki because there were no Miki males. In 1899 the two migrated to Hawaii and worked on sugar beet plantations to save enough money for them to go to Vancouver. My father, Kazuo, was born 1907 at a logging camp in Tynehead which is now Surrey. His father later became a salmon fisherman and then a shrimp fisherman. Yukutaro passed away in 1922. My grandmother Kiyo took the three youngest children to Japan to be raised by her sister and returned to Canada to support the remaining three children including my father.
Kazuo Miki and Shizuko Ooto were married in 1935 and lived in Vancouver on Alexander Avenue. I was the first born in Vancouver, followed by my brother Kunio (Les) and sister Joan. My father was a mechanic and just prior to the war worked as logging truck driver for Canal Logging Company owned by Kahei Kamimura. In 1940 my family lived at the logging camp until I was injured in a freak accident when I was four years old. The accident was serious enough that the doctors weren’t sure whether I would live. Fortunately I survived but was left with a noticeable permanent scar on the left side of my face. After the accident we moved into a house on my grandfather’s farm as I was beginning kindergarten and remained there until we moved to Manitoba.
When the evacuation orders came your family chose to go east rather than stay in BC or go to Alberta.
Arrangements were made with the Canadian government to have representatives from the Manitoba Sugar Beet Growers travel to the Haney area to recruit families as labourers for sugar beet farms in Southern Manitoba instead of going to internment camps. What attracted many families was the offer that they would not be separated unlike what happened when families were sent to an internment camp. For three days we travelled by train in old day coaches and arrived at the Immigration Hall adjacent to the CPR Station in May 1942. We were the second group out of the three that year, bringing 1075 Japanese to Manitoba. People were housed there until sugar beet farmers arrived with their trucks to select families they wanted to take them back to the farm. Families with several able-bodied people were selected immediately but families with several small children and a few adults were left at the Immigration Centre, sometimes for months. People commented that this process reminded them of a slave market. Once on the farm the Japanese were not permitted to visit or travel without permission. The harsh winter conditions, the terrible non-insulated housing and the short growing season made life difficult. We lived in a four-room house with three families consisting of seven adults and three children. I recall that in November of 1942 my mother who was pregnant had to request special permission from the RCMP to travel to Winnipeg to have my brother, Roy.
We remained on the sugar beet farm for two seasons before moving to North Kildonan, located on the outskirts of Winnipeg (Japanese could not reside within the boundaries of Winnipeg unless permission was granted by the BC Securities Commission). My father, Kazuo, received special permission to work as a machinist in Winnipeg in order to support the family. The removal from the West Coast had a devastating effect on grandfather Ooto who was forced to do tedious and back-breaking work, unlike on the berry farm. He had lost everything and was at an age where he should have been retiring. He passed away shortly after the move to North Kildonan. I felt that he died a broken man, having very little to give to his family and grandchildren.
In 1948 the Japanese were finally allowed to reside in Winnipeg but many had difficulty finding suitable accommodations because of racism and discrimination. I think my parents found it easier to buy a house in the poorer area of the city which they could barely afford. The first house was located on Alexander Avenue, coincidently, the same street name as in Vancouver. Although there were three adults and four kids living in the house, my parents rented out part of the upstairs to another family to help pay for the mortgage. When I reflect back on the early days in Winnipeg, I am astounded by my parent’s resilience and fortitude to re-establish their life, both having to work long hours to make ends meet while living in crowded conditions. The pattern is similar to what new immigrants face today, usually living in the core area where accommodations are cheaper and then moving out to preferable residential areas once they had accumulated financial stability. Like most Japanese Canadian families, education was stressed and sacrifices made by parents to provide that opportunity.
What has been your experience, as someone deeply involved in the community, living outside either of the two major centres?
Most Japanese Canadians are concentrated in two major centres, Vancouver and Toronto areas. The rest are scattered in smaller communities across Canada. Winnipeg has maintained a strong, vibrant community because the majority came around the same time to work the sugar beet farms. In order to assist the isolated families who were ill-treated by the farmers or who faced poor living or working conditions, the first Japanese Canadian organization after the internment was formed by Harold Hirose, Tom Mitani, Ichiro Hirayama and Shinji Sato to negotiate with the BC Securities Commission on behalf of sugar beet workers. They had to meet secretly to avoid possible reprimand from the authorities. I believe that the collective experiences of the first arrivals have resulted in an active cohesive Japanese Canadian community because of the need to support and assist each other as they made the transition to Winnipeg from the farms. We had a Buddhist and United churches, and the members of both churches supported each other’s activities. The present Manitoba Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association (MJCCA) was established in 1946 to provide social activities, services and assist claimants with the Bird Commission applications.
Manitoba receives a limited number of Japanese immigrants annually, not enough for them to form their own independent organization. The Manitoba Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (MJCCC) has encouraged and invited recent immigrants to use the facility for their gatherings and activities. Many of the post-war immigrants are participating on the Boards of community organizations and in activities. This integration of immigrants with the Japanese Canadian community is vital for the Centre to sustain itself.
We’ve all seen the iconic photo of you signing the Redress agreement with Brian Mulroney. What are your memories of that day and that time?
September 22, 1988 is a day that I will remember fondly as it was the culmination of efforts by many Japanese Canadians who sought justice for the wartime violations from the Federal Government. For all of us it was a day of elation, surprise and pride and yet it was also a day of regret because many people such as my father and grandparents had not lived long enough to enjoy the benefits of the settlement and celebrate the achievement.
The Redress Strategy Committee members who had brokered the agreement had to wait nearly a month before the official announcement was made by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The day before the announcement I received word from the Minister’s office to contact the members of the NAJC Strategy Committee and hurry to Ottawa for the next day. When we arrived in Ottawa we were deliberately ushered by government officials to different bed and breakfast locations so as to avoid media contact. Prior to the 11:00 AM announcement we received a short briefing in the Minister’s office and then taken to the press gallery in the House of Commons to join other Japanese Canadians who had come to Ottawa for this historical event.
As I listened to the words of acknowledgement and apology by the Prime Minister memories of the redress campaign flashed through my mind – the struggle within the Japanese Canadian community, the struggle with the Government and the five successive Multiculturalism Ministers and the struggle to win the approval of the Canadian public. I was relieved that the fight was finally over and that we had succeeded in achieving what we felt was “a just and honourable” settlement. Prior to the official signing of the agreement I met privately with the Prime Minister in his office. I commented to him that this was a long time coming. He said to me, “It has taken me this long to convince my colleagues that this is the right thing to do.” Both the Prime Minister and I signed the official agreement in front of cameras, media, politicians and Japanese Canadian supporters. The terms of the agreement were announced by Hon. Jerry Weiner, Minister for Multiculturalism, at a press conference following the signing ceremony.
What was most gratifying for you about the Redress agreement?
The genuine interest and unwavering support of those Japanese Canadians who took up the challenge and succeeded. What began as “a voice in the wilderness” was to become a Canadian issue of national prominence. It was an achievement that I was so proud and happy to be a part of. It reaffirmed my belief that we live in a wonderful country where past violations such as the ones suffered by Japanese Canadians can be redressed.
Your involvement in the community doesn’t begin and end with Redress – you’ve been involved in community work in many other capacities.
I have continued to play an active role in my community in Winnipeg and am vice-president of the Manitoba Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. For me the survival of the Japanese Canadian community will depend on how the younger generation is nurtured. This will depend on people such as the present leaders being role models and encouraging and supporting the younger members in developing leadership skills. We must also remind them the importance of taking an active role in preserving and sharing our culture and history. Presently, The MJCCA and MJCCC are in the process of amalgamating into one organization so that we can better utilize the available human resources and strengthen community involvement. Many of younger members are participating in the process.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) was established as part of the Japanese Canadian Redress agreement and opened its doors in 1996. I was the first vice-president and served for six years. Today I represent the NAJC on the CRRF Board to ensure that the organization is meeting its mandate as set out by the Act and to orient new Board members on the history and purpose of the Foundation as envisioned by the NAJC.
I am a strong proponent of seeing that the Asian Canadian communities in Manitoba communicate and undertake joint projects that highlight the important role and contributions that Asians make to Canadian society. Ten years ago I arranged for a number of leaders from the various Asian groups to meet and discuss the possibility of organizing Asian Heritage Month activities in May. As the result of the endorsement from the leaders, the Asian Heritage Society of Manitoba was formed in 2003 and I became the first President. For past two years I have been president as we continue to expand our activities each year. The Asian Canadian Festival held outdoors at The Forks has become a major annual May event for Winnipeg.
This summer I will be coordinating the Japanese Pavilion at Folklorama, the largest ethnic festival held annually in North America. The benefit in participating in Folklorama is the opportunity for the younger members of the Japanese Canadian community to meet other young people by coming together and volunteering in the week-long event. It gives volunteers an occasion to learn about the community and partake in the Japanese Canadian culture, food, drinks and entertainment. Last year over 10,000 visitors came to the Japanese Pavilion. If you’re visiting Winnipeg this summer, come and join us at the Japanese Pavilion during Folklorama from August 5 to 11.
Although I am supposed to be retired, most of my time is taken up volunteering with a number of organizations and working with other Asian Canadian groups. I hope that my efforts will help contribute to the survival of the Japanese Canadian community.
You’re a member of the Order of Canada and have received other awards and accolades and now can add the Order of Manitoba to the list – what does receiving this award mean to you?
I have been blessed to receive the Order of Canada in 1991 and this year the Order of Manitoba. What made this more memorable was that the presentation was made by the Lieutenant Governor Philip Lee who has been a friend for many years and is active in the Chinese Canadian community. I was appreciative of the honours given to me for my involvement with the Japanese Canadian community and what we have achieved as a community. When I heard the citations read of other recipients, whether it was the Order of Canada or Order of Manitoba, I was awed by the individual’s achievements and contributions and so I felt humbled to be in the company of these respected Canadians.
You’ve had a long and varied career – what has brought you the most satisfaction?
I would say that the most satisfying experience was the ten years I spent as a Canadian Citizenship Judge. Over the period from 1998 until 2008, I had approved and sworn in over 40,000 new citizens and conducted over 1000 ceremonies not only in Manitoba but across Canada. During the ceremony I would share the story of my family, especially about my parents who were born in Canada and yet did not have citizenship rights as they were denied the right to vote. Many people came up to me after the ceremony and thanked me for sharing my personal story because they had not realized that people in the past such as the Japanese were not treated equally or fairly.
Through interviews I had the opportunity to hear many stories, both sad and happy – the struggles they faced in their homeland, life in refugee camps but also how appreciative they were of the opportunity to live in a democratic society. The new citizens had hopes for a better life for their children and placed a high value on what it means to be a Canadian. So often when I’m at a mall or downtown shopping, people would come to me and thank me for being the Judge that granted them citizenship. This is when I realize the impact I have had on so many lives. Being a citizenship judge has been an overwhelming, rewarding experience and one that I will forever cherish.