Honouring Our People: a sansei’s perspective 1
by Greg Miyanaga
My grandparents on my father’s side were relocated from Mission, BC, to the sugar beet fields of Taber, Alberta. My family did not talk about what happened to them, and it was much later that I found out what they went through. I was angry that my grandparents and so many others had to endure such hatred, loss, and injustice.
Now, I have slightly different feelings. When I think of Japanese Canadians who went through internment and relocation, I don’t just think of them as victims, I think of them as survivors, as heroes. I am so proud of my grandparents and all the Japanese Canadians who were interned and relocated. For them to come through the war years, and the ensuing aftermath, is a triumph of the human spirit.
My grandfather embodied that spirit. He was always a man with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Grandpa Miyanaga rarely spoke of when he was relocated, but when he did, you saw a glimmer of sadness pass over his usually happy demeanour. But despite what he felt about losing his property and his logging company, and having to move his family to an unknown place, he never seemed bitter. He lived the belief that you worked hard and then you moved forward. I don’t think I would have been that gracious had the same thing happened to me, so I am proud that in people like my grandparents, I have excellent role models for facing adversity.
I teach elementary school, and sometimes I get the opportunity to teach a series of lessons of what happened to Japanese Canadians during World War II. Through simulations and role-playing, the grade 5 students get an interesting insight about the value of human rights, and what happens when those rights are taken away. Interestingly, the students feel the same rage and sadness that I felt when I first learned of the injustices to Japanese Canadians. Children at that age have a very strong sense of fair and unfair. When they learn about Redress, most of the students have a sense of closure and their negative feelings dissipate somewhat. When I teach these lessons, I try to model the same graciousness that my grandparents modeled for me.
The students learn modern-day life skills in the context of the experience of Japanese Canadians. I try to pass on the three big ideas that I learned from internment and relocation:
1. People (even adults, parents, and governments) will make mistakes. This is why we have rules, laws, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to help guide us from making mistakes or being unfair.
2. It is important that we atone for our mistakes and learn from them. This is why we make apologies, and why we need to learn to solve problems. Hopefully, the lessons we learned from past will keep us from treating people unfairly in the future.
3. Though it is important to acknowledge our failures, it is also important to recognize how far we have come. We learn from our history and will continue to improve. I think Grandpa Miyanaga would have approved: appreciate what you have and move forward. You get a better sense of how far you have made it when you see where you started.
I think this is part of the legacy that survivors of internment offer to our children and our future citizens. This is why I think the internment conference (Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment) is so important. We need to hear firsthand accounts of surviving internees, so that future generations can learn from them. I would love to be able to use their stories in my classroom.
So how do I feel about internment? The bitterness gives way to pride, pride that my ancestors battled tremendous hardship and came through with heroic dignity. The other feeling that emerges is gratitude. I am grateful that we learned from what Japanese Canadians endured and that I know that my life is better because of their triumph over great adversity.
Greg Miyanaga is a third generation Japanese Canadian. He helped develop an educational resource package for elementary teachers about the internment and redress called Internment and Redress: The Story of Japanese Canadians. [www.japanesecanadianhistory.net/resource_guides.htm] He lives with his wife, Brenda, and daughter, Beth, in Coquitlam.