In Conversation with Art Miki
Although the idea of Redress was first articulated during the Japanese Canadian Centennial year, the actual Redress movement wasn’t officially launched until a few years later. Was there something about the timing of launch of the Redress campaign that was crucial to its eventual success?
Although the NAJC established a Reparations Committee shortly after the Centennial year and began doing research on redress, it wasn’t until the hearings conducted in the United States by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians during the early 1980s that the Canadian media began to ask whether similar actions were being considered in Canada. The Commission’s report, released in February 1983, called for an acknowledgement and individual compensation of $20,000. Shortly after the American report was made public, an article appeared in the Toronto press that George Imai, chair of the NAJC Redress Committee, was publicly advocating a redress position asking for an acknowledgement and a $50 million community fund. This caught most people by surprise as very little consultation had occurred with the Japanese Canadian community. The NAJC delegates in September 1983 opposed the proposal and felt that further consultation with the community was necessary before a specific position could be adopted.
The official launch of the NAJC redress campaign took place in Winnipeg in January 1984, the same time that I became president of NAJC. Although the political dynamics are very different in each country, the timing of our campaign seems be influenced by the progress made in the United States. This is also true with the timing of the redress settlements and the amount of individual compensation. In the United States the redress agreement was signed in August 1988 and in Canada, a month later. The American settlement was the precedent that the Canadian government could no longer ignore.
It’s interesting, going back over issues of The Bulletin from that time, that there was this real lull in information just before the announcement was made. In retrospect, and reading the accounts afterwards, it’s clear that there was a lot going on behind the scenes that couldn’t be reported. At the time though, it seemed like the process was in the doldrums. Was it difficult keeping a lid on what was actually going on, in terms of the negotiations that led up to the settlement and the official announcement? And at what point did you realize that it was actually going to happen?
Once the redress file was placed in the hands of the Honourable Gerry Weiner, the Minister of Multiculturalism, in April 1988 a different attitude emerged from the government. Mr. Weiner, at the first meeting, assured us that the government was ready to restart negotiations and that the Prime Minister was in full support of resolving the redress stalemate. A secret negotiation meeting was held between NAJC and government officials led by Mr. Weiner in late August 1988 in Montreal. Hon. Lucien Bouchard who was Secretary of State, attended at the initial stage assuring us that the Prime Minister wanted the issue resolved. After two days of meetings the NAJC reached a tentative agreement. It was at that time that the Strategy Committee members realized that the settlement was for real. I recall sitting with Roger Obata back at the hotel room celebrating on what we felt was “a dream come true”.
However, the NAJC representatives at the meeting were asked to keep the agreement confidential until such time that the Prime Minister was ready to make the announcement in the House of Commons. For nearly one month we were not able to share our success with anyone. Only four members of Cabinet were privy to the tentative agreement, namely Minister Weiner, Hon. Lucien Bouchard, Hon. Don Maznakowski and the Prime Minister. The delay was required so that each of them would speak to their Cabinet colleagues to ensure support for the settlement. I finally received a call from Minister Weiner’s office at noon on September 21st that the redress announcement would be made the following day. I contacted the members of the Strategy Committee to book their flight to Ottawa and informed community leaders of the great news. It was difficult for all of us to remain silent when we were receiving calls from the community and media about the negotiation meetings.
I imagine there were times when you lost hope that a settlement could be reached. Was there ever a low point where you felt it just wasn’t going to happen?
I think the turning point of the campaign occurred in June 1987 when the NAJC rejected what Minister David Crombie said was “the government’s final offer of an acknowledgement and a $12 million community fund.” All negotiations ceased. That was the lowest point of the campaign where I thought redress would not happen. At that time I was beginning to be doubtful whether we would have the strength to carry on. However, I never lost hope nor felt that all was lost because the redress campaign itself was a great vehicle to educate Canadians about the injustices Japanese Canadians endured during the Second World War.
Conversely, was there any one turning point that cleared the way for the eventual Redress settlement?
At the same time we recognized that the redress process we had been undertaking had not been working and that we needed to stake out a different approach. The NAJC Strategy Committee met with lawyer Don Rosenbloom and decided that we should make redress more inclusive for Canadians and promote it as a “human rights” issue. This led to the formation of The National Coalition for Japanese Canadian Redress that included individual Canadians as well as churches, unions, ethnic and Aboriginal organizations. This project culminated with the historic Redress Rally on Parliament Hill in April 1988. I believe that changing the focus of redress as a human rights issue cleared the way for an eventual redress settlement. At this point the supportive voices from the broader Canadian society could not be easily ignored by the government.
There was some bad blood between various community leaders in terms of the approach to Redress, with George Imai and his group taking one position and the NAJC taking another. Did you get the sense that the community itself was divided on the issue, or did you feel that the community at large was behind the NAJC’s approach?
I believe the issue that divided the community was individual compensation. George Imai’s group supported a community fund and may have feared that seeking individual compensation would create backlash or that the government would not accept the concept of individual recognition. Whatever the reason, this division did create conflicts amongst members of the Japanese Canadian community. Initially, I felt that the internal divisions provided the government with excuses to prolong resolving the issue. But once we were able to convince the government that the NAJC truly represented the Japanese Canadian community, discussions with government officials became more focused on the specifics of the redress proposal. By 1987 I felt that the majority of Japanese Canadians supported NAJC’s position and this strengthened as the Canadian public and the media responded more favourably towards redress.
The people who opposed individual compensation often brought up the spectre of a backlash on the part of the Canadian public, and a perception that Japanese Canadians were greedy. From your vantage point, did any of that come to pass?
Although there may have been concerns about backlash from the Canadian population for seeking individual compensation, when the announcement was made there was very little negative reaction towards Japanese Canadians. I believe that the government made efforts to ensure that certain segments of society such as the veterans’ organizations would not openly oppose the settlement. The polls also showed that the majority of Canadians were in favour the government’s decision.
Despite the many challenges and struggles along the way, the NAJC pulled it off—the Redress struggle was resolved successfully. Looking back twenty years later, what is your analysis of how the settlement impacted the community?
I feel that the redress settlement, especially the community fund has helped revitalize the Japanese Canadian community. Whereas there were only two cultural centres before the settlement, today we have twelve. There are now several large senior residences across Canada. Much has been done to preserve our history and promote Japanese Canadian culture through museum projects, books, films, theatre, dance and music supported by redress funds. The NAJC has endowment funds that will continue to assist individuals and community organizations into the future. One of the positive outcomes of the redress settlement is the precedent that it has set for other past injustices to be resolved. The model of the Japanese Canadian redress settlement is one that was used in the more recent resolutions concerning the Chinese Head Tax, Residential Schools and Aboriginal veterans. Our achievement has had a positive impact for other Canadians and is a legacy that we can all be proud of.
Art Miki, was elected president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians in 1984 and spearheaded the Japanese Canadian Redress campaign.
A former educator, he received a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Manitoba in 1969, and a Master of Education degree in 1975. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg in 1999. A teacher for 29 years, he also spent several years as an elementary school principal.
Following the Redress agreement, Miki served as a director of The Canadian Race Relations Foundation, established by the government of Jean Chrétien. Miki served as vice-chair of the CRRF and is currently the NAJC Advisor to the Board
In 1991, he was appointed to the Order of Canada and in February 1998, he was appointed as a Citizenship Judge in Manitoba by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard.