Community Profile: Naomi Yamamoto, MLA
When Naomi Yamamoto was elected as the BC Liberal MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale on May 12, 2009, it marked the first time a Japanese Canadian had been elected to the BC Legislature. Coming as it did almost exactly sixty years to the day after Japanese Canadians were finally given the right to vote, the significance of the win was not lost on either Yamamoto or her father Mas, who was there by her side on election night. Born in Vancouver and interned at Lemon Creek during the Second World War, Mas was 22 years old when he and thousands of other Japanese Canadians finally won the right to live anywhere in Canada and, perhaps more importantly, to participate fully in the democratic process.
Almost from the moment Japanese began to immigrate to Canada—looking for a better life for themselves and, more importantly, their children—they began to lobby for the right to vote, a privilege also denied other Asians and First Nations peoples. Delegations were sent to Ottawa, pleading their case, to no avail. During World War One over 200 Nikkei volunteers attempted to enlist in the Canadian Army, hoping to prove their loyalty to Canada. After being rejected in British Columbia, 195 issei volunteers and one nisei—Private George Uyehara—travelled to Alberta to join Canadian battalions of the British army. Stationed in Europe, 54 were killed and 92 were wounded. The issei veterans received the franchise in 1931, becoming the only Japanese Canadians qualified to vote, although that didn’t stop them from being stripped of their rights and interned, along with fellow Japanese Canadians, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
With the granting of full rights of citizenship in 1949, Japanese Canadians began the process of fully reintegrating back into society, rebuilding— and often reshaping—the lives that they had built before the war. In the ensuing years, the Japanese Canadian community has become an integral part of the Canadian fabric, although surprisingly few Nikkei have entered the political arena. Yamamoto (provincially) and Bev Oda (federally) are the two most prominent.
Naomi Yamamoto talked to The Bulletin about her life and her time in Victoria as an MLA.
In Her Own Words
Naomi Yamamoto, MLA – Interview
Tell me a bit about your childhood and your family.
I was born in Vancouver, moved to the North Shore and have lived in North Vancouver since 1970. I graduated from UBC with a BA, major in Film and Television Studies. Much to the disappointment of my dad, none of the kids followed his footsteps in science. Mas earned a PhD in Pharmacology – biochemistry.
My sister Donna owns a very successful health food store and is a dedicated actress. Tonight is the last performance of Salmon Row, produced by Mortal Coil in Steveston. She has a significant role as a Japanese war bride who decides not to marry the man she was originally arranged to wed. Donna has appeared in many television shows, commercials and movies although her passion is theatre.
Brian, is the youngest sibling and father to two absolutely wonderful girls ages 9 and 12. I’m trying to turn them into golfers.
My dad’s commitment to education has always been a priority. There was no doubt that I was going to transition to university immediately after high school.
Although we had a modest upbringing, our family summer holidays were memorable. Summers were filled with camping and fishing trips around the province of BC. My favourite place in BC is Pacific Rim National Park, a place we frequented often as kids, back when camping and driving on Long Beach was still permitted. Long before seat belts were required, our family of five travelled the province in a Volkswagen Beetle (without gas gauge, seatbelts or turn signals) AND still managed to pick up hitchhikers.
Have you always had an interest in politics?
I’ve always had an interest in public service and volunteerism. I’ve been involved in the Chamber of Commerce at both the local and provincial level. I’ve served on the boards of the North Shore Neighbourhood House, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, North Shore Credit Union and the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation. I’m particularly passionate about ensuring that kids have access to quality art education. The Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation ensures the viability of the Artists for Kids program in School District 44.
What sparked your interest in running for Government?
Sometimes the most significant events in one’s lifetime aren’t necessarily planned in advance. Katherine Whittred, the former BC Liberal MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, announced she was retiring. She encouraged me to consider seeking the nomination. At the time I didn’t realize how difficult it was to win the nomination. Earning the right to represent the BC Liberals in the nomination content was more difficult than running for the general election.
I’m so proud of British Columbia. As a representative of the BC Legislature, all I want to do is to ensure that we allow our people and communities to reach their potential. That’s what I care about, that’s what interests me.
I imagine your father felt a certain vindication when you were elected to the BC Legislature. Was he supportive of your running for office?
I’m sure he does in his own quiet, dignified way. He doesn’t talk about it much, but I know it means a lot to him (you know what it’s like to be raised in a Japanese Canadian family . . . quiet, reserved, not demonstrative but with high expectations).
I’d like to tell you about the journey that my dad took to get his post-secondary education. My dad was born in Vancouver. His mother and father were Canadian citizens, but in grade 8, when he was 14, a student of Point Grey Junior High School, the War Measures Act was implemented, and he and his family, along with other Japanese Canadians were relocated to internment camps.
Fortunately, the internment camp that my father was relocated to was in Lemon Creek, which is in a gorgeous part of the Kootenays in south-east BC. Unfortunately, after being pulled out of grade 8, he missed a whole year of school. He started grade 9 a year later in camp after a school was built. The war ended when he was 17 years old; his family moved around the Interior of BC and he worked the orchards for about four years. He eventually moved back to the coast and worked at a mental hospital for four years. He then moved up to Tuktoyaktuk to work at DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line as a first aid attendant, saving his money so that he could complete his education. During this time, he completed his grade 10, 11, 12 and 13, all by correspondence. He received a letter from the department of education in Victoria while he was completing his high school education that cautioned him to slow down . . . they felt he was completing his education too quickly. He responded by letter, saying that he didn’t have the time to do it any slower—he was in his 30s, married and had three children. By the age of 32 he was finally able to enroll at UBC in the faculty of pharmacology. Three years later he received his undergraduate degree and then his Master’s and PhD. I was seven years old when my dad completed university. I remember clearly his graduation gown and diploma.
I’m telling this story, my father’s story, because post-secondary education is very important, but those of us who pursue this path have uniquely different stories. I’m very proud of the challenges that my father overcame and I firmly believe that is the reason why I’m so passionate about post-secondary education.
The Ministry of Advanced Education plays an important role in the lives of British Columbians and all those who choose to come to BC to study. We know that post-secondary education has always been and will continue to be a cornerstone of BC’s economic success. By investing in our public, post-secondary institutions we are investing in British Columbians and their families (just like my father and our family).
Forecasts tell us that over the next ten years there will be more than one million job openings in BC, and more than three-quarters of these jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education, be it through our colleges, universities or institutes. Many of these future jobs will be in technology, trades, health care and sciences. Helping our students develop the knowledge and skills needed to fill those jobs will result in a highly skilled and talented labour force, one that will be capable of sustaining BC’s success in the global knowledge-based economy.
What have your first few years in office been like?
I’ve been very fortunate to be appointed to Cabinet and have been immersed in three challenging portfolios—Intergovernmental Relations, Building Code Renewal and now the Ministry of Advanced Education. I’ve enjoyed each one. I’m so impressed with the excellent and committed public servants that I’ve worked with.
What has been the most difficult transition for you?
As the owner of a graphic design company, Tora Design Group, I derived great satisfaction from working on projects—restaurant menus, film props, logos, newsletters . . . Clients came to us for creative design work. Work that they couldn’t do themselves. We always exceeded their expectations. Not so in politics. Government policies are not always viewed favourably by everyone and it seems that a lot of people feel that they can do the job better than me and my colleagues.
I imagine it’s been a pretty big learning curve. Is there anything that has surprised you about the experience?
People on both sides of the House (government and opposition) are genuinely committed to making BC the best it can be.
Politicians have had a pretty rough ride in opinion polls of late – how do you think they can go about winning back people’s trust and respect?
While every elected official attracts my complete respect, I find the climate to be less than cordial. It’s less collaborative and more adversarial than it should be. I feel there is a lot more we can accomplish if the opposition can seek ways to work with government (and visa versa) and make it a more constructive experience.
Open Government and Public Engagement are two strategies that I believe will go a long way to connect with people. A willingness to listen and engage with British Columbians is critical.
In many ways it must be a thankless task. That said, there must be some rewarding moments. Can you cite some examples?
Resolving the Flathead Valley land use issue with Montana was very rewarding. A balance was struck to protect the pristine bio-diversity of the Flathead Valley with local and First Nations access to the back country recreation and hunting and resource development. I worked on this in my role as Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations.
Of course the 2010 Olympics and Paralympic Games was the ultimate highlight. We worked day and night during the Games, hosting delegations, ensuring protocols were respected, and meeting business people from all over the world.
In my current role as Minister of Advanced Education, my most gratifying moments are spent talking to our wonderful students. I get a strong sense of how post-secondary education is positively impacting their lives . . . including suggestions on how to make it better.
Is there a politician you look up to as someone you would like to emulate?
Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie
What would you say to young people who are thinking of entering politics?
Do it for the right reasons. Make it out of a desire to serve. The good ones talk less, listen more.
Are you planning on running again? Or have you thought that far ahead?
Well, that’s the big question right now . . . when will the next provincial election be called? Yes, I plan on running again. I’ve enjoyed doing this for two years. I’d like to have the opportunity to serve the people of North Vancouver-Lonsdale for another term.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Trail running, although I broke my leg badly last year and cycling is easier than running right now. I think I need to get the metal plate, pins and screws removed. Four months after breaking my leg, I cycled the hilltop towns in Tuscany for a week. That was a truly memorable experience.
I love to fish! I enjoy river fishing the most—steelhead (Kispiox, Bulkley, Telkwa and Gold Rivers are some of my favourites). I like the Squamish system (Cheakamus, Cheekeye, Mamquam) and some spots on the Vedder for Spring, Chum, Coho and Pinks. I have five rods: 4 and 8 weight fly rods, drift casting rod, mooching rod and a spinning reel/rod. I don’t do as much salt water fishing as I used to.
I’m golfing up a storm this summer—had to make up for being in a cast last year during golf season. Sadly, I can’t give up my day job and turn pro ; ). I should also mention I’m a huge Twitter fan! @naomiyamamoto
Naomi Yamamoto will be Guest Speaker at the 2011 Nikkei Place Community Awards & Fundraising Dinner on Saturday, September 24. For more information, visit www.nikkeiplace.org