Susanne Tabata: The Road to BC Redress
by John Endo Greenaway
The seeds for BC Redress were planted 2012 with the Provincial apology led by former MLA Naomi Yamamoto. Beginning in earnest in early 2020, a team led by National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) board member Susanne Tabata began talks with BC Government, conducted organizational consultations and presentations, and built the six BC Redress pillars, all with the aim of crafting a comprehensive BC Redress package. Put on hold for a short time by the COVID-19 pandemic, talks picked up again, and the argument for BC Redress has been positively received by British Columbia’s NDP government. On March 31, 2021, the Nikkei Seniors Health Care and Housing Society (NSHCHS) signed a $2million contract with the BC Ministry of Health, receiving end of year funds to develop and implement a program to benefit Japanese Canadian survivors across Canada who were directly impacted by the actions of the BC Government from 1942 – 1949. Now in its final stages, BC Redress sets the stage for a comprehensive settlement with a province that has a less-than-stellar history regarding Indigenous peoples and communities of colour. On the eve of the potential settlement, I talked to Susanne Tabata about her role in the BC Redress and the impetus behind her community work.
Bulletin Interview: Susanne Tabata
You’ve been working, or should I say, volunteering, on the BC Redress file for going on two and a half years now. I get the sense that this is very personal for you, and is tied to the experience of your father’s side of the family during the war years. What can you tell me about that experience?
It’s personal. For most of us who are politically involved in the community. At 96, my father Susumu is a nisei whose story has the similar chapters of forced uprooting, internment, dispossession and displacement. It is rarely if ever referred to as ‘state violence’.
My great uncle Tsunematsu Atagi had built a substantial boat building business in what is Garry Point in Steveston, where the gillnetters are tied up at Scotch Pond. There is a installed sign indicating that this was the home of the Atagis and the Atagi Boatworks. My father grew up there with his parents and a bunch of brothers and sisters. He attended Lord Byng and then Richmond High School. In 1942, Susumu’s immediate family was uprooted to Kaslo BC, which removed Sus from his high school overnight. My dad stayed at the Langham Hotel with his brother Sho, and there are archives in Kaslo today which pay homage to this time period and the Japanese Canadians who were part of it. From the road camp where he was working, my grandfather Hyozo was sent to the Angler POW camp because he protested the separation of fathers from families. The family eventually moved to Midway and lived in an abandoned saloon. The Atagis on the other end, were part of the self-supporting families.
I’ve learned more about the The Royal Commission on Japanese Claims (1947-1951), known as the “Bird Commission,” which investigated and offered almost nothing to Japanese Canadians for their losses of property during the 1940s. This was was no more than an inquiry pre-destined to fail. The Atagis were part of the commission and their testimony is found in the book Landscapes of Injustice: A New Perspective on the Internment and Dispossession of Japanese Canadians in 1942.
Your father wrote haiku when he was in Midway. I find it interesting that a number of internees in the various camps turned to poetry to get through those years. Did you father ever talk about it?
Yes. The Midway Haiku Club was primarily issei, but my father spoke and wrote Japanese and was able to work join this group. One of his haiku hung on the wall of his bedroom for 50 years. It is published in your book Departures, which is a favourite read for my dad because of the pictures. The club was tight knit and gathered regularly. When he was accepted to UBC in 1947, members of the club wrote haiku for him to wish him well. I have this collection. It has not yet been translated. And I hope to donate it to the Nikkei National Museum Archives.
In 1945 the Canadian government gave Japanese Canadians in the camps two options, prove your loyalty to Canada by moving east of the Rockies, or accept a one-way ticket “back” to Japan. Despite this, Sus was accepted into UBC, the first Japanese Canadian from the internment camps to be accepted. How did this come about?
As you note in Departures, he applied for and was accepted into UC Berkeley in San Francisco in Physics in 1946 but the Canadian Government would not issue a travel permit. But in 1947 he was accepted into UBC – and he has mused this was perhaps out of embarrassment. He had to report to the RCMP and was issued a travelling permit. He joined the Civil Liberties Club at UBC and spoke on campus. This was not a popular UBC club as Japanese Canadians were vilified. Also, in the 1940s, Canada was enacting genocide on indigenous people, and this would sadly continue.
What happened to the rest of the family when the camps were closed down?
They did not go east of the Rockies. They returned to the coast after restrictions were lifted. A few of dad’s older siblings were domestic workers in the West Side. My Aunt Emi (Kobayashi) became a domestic worker for Dorothy Livesay, a famous Canadian poet who wrote a poem, Call My People Home, which referenced the family. My dad knew Dorothy’s husband, Duncan McNair, who was a progressive prof at UBC at the time and that’s where the connection took place. In 1988 I met her son, curator Peter Livesay McNair, at the Royal BC Museum, and he had put together a display of the poem. The Tabatas moved to 4th and Burrard where the Boardroom is today. The younger ones went to Kits High. There were 11 kids, some with strong personalities, so they all took off in different directions. It’s a big family, and we are related to a lot of people in the community.
So we talked about your dad’s history, but I’m interested in who he was as a man and as a husband and a father. Tell me about your relationship with him, as a child and as you grew older.
He was very happy doing his PhD at Tokyo University. Those times for me, living in Japan as a young kid, were quite exciting and very influenced by post US Occupation Japanese culture in Tokyo. Coming back to Canada, Nanaimo was a tough city. He was an oceanographer, and we had a place on Gabriola Island where he has always been on his free time. He didn’t really engage with trials of childrearing. That was left to my mother. He believed in the pursuit of science, or the pursuit of being useful. His mantra was ‘think for yourself’, which meant ‘do it yourself’, literally. That said, we got along. Both of my parents were genuinely connected, were early environmentalists, and of course, Ken Adachi’s The Enemy That Never Was was a book on the coffee table of the living room. He was an outspoken supporter of the NDP and CCF, and involved in the earliest days of Co-Op gas stations in Nanaimo. He was friendly with Tommy Shoyama, and in Victoria, aside from many friends in the scientific community, Henry Shimizu, Dick Nakamura and that gang were his nisei buddies. He did support the Vancouver Island chapter of Canadian Redress.
Your mother, who was not Japanese Canadian, passed away while you were working on this file. It was unusual in those days to intermarry. My own parents were unusual in that respect as well. How did they meet, and did they get any grief at the time, do you know?
My parents married in 1959 – rest in peace mom – at a time when inter-racial marriages were unusual and generally unacceptable. He was a scientist and she was a nurse in Nanaimo. He stated in a video that his mother would have preferred he marry a nisei. His father did not care one way or another. On the other hand, my mother was raised by a Winnipeg social democrat Emma Soderman McNally, who was also a single mother of five. My maternal grandmother approved of my father because he was a hard worker and they shared the same political views.
Did your father carry much anger from those war years?
Yes. Not when we lived in Japan, but when we returned to Canada. I was discouraged from speaking Japanese. His anger was unprovoked. That subsided over the years. It wasn’t until I became involved in the activist end of the JC community through the GVJCCA – Judy Hanazawa and that crew – that I heard similar family stories. Today, one of our ‘asks’ from the BC Government is money for intergenerational gatherings to address trauma. This was a clear ‘ask’ and we built this with input from UVic Professor Dr. Karen Kobayashi, echoed by sansei leaders in Canada like Melisa Kamibayashi in Ottawa. An example of this type of gathering are the community-led gatherings similar to what Connie Kadota and Lucy Komori did with Tsunagu.
What did you learn from your parents that has stayed with you, do you think?
Think critically. Even if it means not being part of the masses. Civil liberties. Don’t take them for granted because they’ve taken years to build, and can be stripped away with a stroke of a pen. Don’t vilify citizens who have no say in the wars their leaders are waging. Do support indigenous rights, the environment, and do advocate for those without a voice.
With your mother gone, you’re essentially your father’s caregiver now. What has that been like for the two of you?
We’ve always got along. I have become very quickly aware of the challenges caregivers and seniors face at home and in the health care system. My mother took care of my father for 61 years. I cannot fill her shoes and admit that I didn’t imagine I’d be doing personal care for my father. We are lucky to be able to bring in home support, and our home life has been very peaceful.
On May 7, 2012, then-Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto introduced a motion in the BC Legislative Assembly acknowledging, and apologizing for, the role of the BC government in the Federal decision to intern Japanese Canadians during World War Two. Adrian Dix, who was at the time the NDP opposition leader, spoke in favor of the motion. The motion was passed unanimously. Some might say, well, the BC government already apologized, why do we need redress now, especially given the federal redress apology and compensation of 1988. What do you say to that?
Watch Swimming Upstream – a video essay created by Justice Maryka Omatsu that builds a case for BC Redress. The BC Government in the 1940s played a large role in the destruction of the community. We are asking for legacy initiatives as a meaningful follow-up to the 2012 Apology led by former MLA Naomi Yamamoto. I reached out to Naomi in 2019 to be part of the presentation we made to the BC Government, and she joined us. She should be fully acknowledged for bringing this motion into the BC Legislature in 2012. A dedicated group of Japanese Canadians led by Tosh Suzuki and Roy Inouye were involved with early work on legacy initiatives with museum staff, and Tosh Suzuki worked on this apology. This group deserves credit for that. Before I got involved with this file, the NAJC took on the matter of BC Redress in 2017. Former NAJC Executive Director Ken Noma was very involved, as was UVic’s John Price for his articles, as well as Lorene Oikawa. In 2018, a small delegation went to meet the Premier: David Mitsui, Lorene Oikawa & BC Chapter Presidents Tsugio Kurushima, George Uyeda, Eiko Eby and Rick Ogasawara. Big steps happened when the NAJC received funding from the BC Government to conduct community consultations in 2019. Maryka Omatsu, Art Miki, Judy Hanazawa, Lynn Kobayashi, Les Kojima, Eiko Eby, and Kevin Okabe did the live-round of community consultations and wrote the recommendations report, which talked about themes. Board members Alex Miki and Keiko Miki helped. That was a big step. Maryka Omatsu led that Steering Committee.
How did you find yourself steering this unwieldy ship?
In November 2019, I did the stagecraft for the presentation of the submission of the Recommendations for Redressing Historical Wrongs Against Japanese Canadians in BC report, submitted to Hon Minister of Tourism Arts and Culture Lisa Beare, which cited five thematic recommendations to the BC Government. I got involved after this submission in November 2019 and a shift took place to define & build communications with the BC government, and to define & build the ‘asks’, and work with the stakeholders to strengthen the negotiations with the BC government. The NAJC then wrapped the Steering Committee and shifted into Communications Strategy, followed by Negotiations Strategy, and I steered those groups which eventually led to doing this fulltime, now as BC Redress Project Director.
Communications meant working with primarily with the experience of Angus McAllister, plus Carmel Tanaka, Maryka Omatsu, Art Miki, Paul Kariya, Lorene Oikawa and Les Kojima. That was a short-lived committee, and Angus was the core of it. He left very suddenly, not without assisting me with creating the framework of next steps to the NAJC National Executive Board.
That rolled into the development of asks and it rolled into COVID all at the same time.
Authorized by the NAJC, I built the asks and planned communications with an assistance from strategist Paul Noble and bound in a document, ‘2020 NAJC BC Redress Ask Development, Political & Communications Roadmap’, breaking down meta data from the original consultations. We did stakeholder validations, and I am still working with those stakeholders. Seniors health and wellness evolved out of looking at best ways to impact those who lived through the internment-era who live inside and outside of BC. It was elevated as a very legitimate ask, and we sought further analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFSD) in Ottawa, who concluded that the reasonableness of a Fund for Seniors was absolutely solid, and easily could be in the $300Million dollar range. That is a subject of a much longer article.
The Negotiations team evolved out of the communications strategy team and had to have BC-based government- facing community members. Paul Kariya & myself have done those ‘negotiation’ type talks, and Lorene Oikawa, as the NAJC President, has provided key support. Honorary co-chairs Art Miki and Maryka Omatsu are also on the committee.
The July 2020 ‘NAJC BC Redress Legacy Initiatives’ was a one-pager submitted to the Premier’s Office, and listed ‘asks’ to the BC Government, later published in the August 2020 Bulletin. Premier John Horgan expressed his support at this meeting, along with Chief of Staff Geoff Meggs and then Minister of Citizens’ Services Anne Kang, who at that time had our file.
After the NDP dropped the writ to go to the polls for an October election in 2020, we found ourselves with an NDP majority. A new position was created in the Attorney General’s Ministry called the Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-racism Initiatives, led by PS Rachna Singh. Our contacts moved to that Ministry, which is led by Attorney General David Eby.
2021 meant setting up and refining community engaged ‘asks’ for the BC Government, and those meetings took place in April – September 2021, in which community participated in six presentations to the government.
Can you tell me where we stand at the moment in regards to a possible settlement or announcement?
We are at the finish line. The BC Government has the 150 page BC Redress Japanese Canadian Legacy Initiatives Proposal (Tabata/Noble – September 22, 2021), which is a bundle of the six proposals, each representing one topic, as presented in five BC Government meetings held April through September, 2021. There are on-going discussions on topics, including a new conversation about social housing.
Wherever we land, gratitude goes to the community members & supporters who have provided input & attended presentations of the 2021 proposals to the BC government, to include Mary Kimoto, Howard Shimokura, Mas Fukawa, Ruth Coles, Art Miki, Kelvin Higo, Judy Hanazawa, Lynn Kobayashi. Karen Kobayashi, Eiko Eby, Cathy Makihara, John Ota, Kirsten McAllister, Ramses Miki-Hansen, Keiko Funahashi, Jay Hiraga, Michael Abe & Jordan Stanger Ross, Laura Saimoto, Karah Goshinmon, Mayor Leonard Casley, Luke Straith, and Rob Poncelot. Endorsement has also come from the NAJC National Executive Board, all BC organizations, the National Council of the NAJC, and the overwhelming number of Japanese Canadians who have asked to be kept informed of BC Redress as part of the Japanese Canadian Survivors Health and Wellness Fund.
What has the biggest challenge been for you?
The pandemic has presented challenges. For two years we have been on Zoom, with emails, texts and phone calls as the primary means of contact. There has been little physical contact, and this twoyear period of isolation has added a nonstop level of fear and stress, with many folks in BC suffering from physical, economic and spiritual hardships. Also, the community is not homogenous. And the priorities and politics of individuals, community organizations in the BC lower mainland, underserved communities in BC, and the vast number of different organizations outside of BC, are all different.
BC Redress is built on six pillars, can you remind us what they are?
Education, Anti-racism, Monument, Seniors Health and Wellness, Heritage, Community& Culture. These took 18 months to develop. The website bcredress.ca has some detail. The Japanese Canadian Survivors Health & Wellness Fund had national reach, given that the seniors for the most part started in BC before being forced east of the Rockies. How much reach will BC Redress have, given that it’s a negotiation with a provincial government? Who will benefit from this? The Japanese Canadian Survivors Health & Wellness Fund was a litmus test for BC Redress. It succeeded in connecting to survivors & creating the start of a national network, and distributed grants to over 1800 individuals, 50 organization projects, and 19 group projects. Depending on the final package, the next fund is meant to assist individual survivors with grants. The monument near the Legislative Precinct in Victoria is a monument for the community, and will contain the names of Japanese Canadians who were uprooted. Within the heritage proposal we ask for funding for the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby to create a digital hub, accessible by anyone in Canada. Should there be a community & culture fund, it would be accessible.
Anything you’d like to add?
Today, I took my dad to his home turf in Garry Point at Steveston, and found to our dismay that the City of Richmond signage which acknowledges the area was once a thriving boat building enterprise and home to the Atagis, has recently been removed. Let’s hope this Redress package is fulsome and meaningful. A lot more can be written and explained, and I have amassed the notes to write an account of this work during the pandemic which will look at the Road to BC Redress.