Community activist will co-teach UBC’s new Japanese-Canadian history course

Mary Kitagawa on racist euphemisms, white privilege, and the importance of teaching history “the way we lived it”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new occasional series called “Community Voices.” In this series, we connect with members of the public to share their perspectives and priorities with UBC. If you have a story idea for this series, please contact Julie Jenkins at

You might not imagine a community activist co-teaching a UBC history course, but Mary Kitagawa is more than qualified.

Herself a survivor of the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War Two, Kitagawa led the campaign to have UBC recognize 76 students expelled in 1942 for no reason beyond their Japanese ancestry.

In May 2012, her four-year campaign culminated in 11 of 22 living students crossing the stage and receiving honorary UBC degrees. Sadly, a majority of the students passed away before they could be recognized.

Mary, a University of Toronto alumna and proud grandparent of four UBC students, helped organize the ceremony.

Her upcoming Japanese Canadian history course, to be co-taught with Professor John Price in the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program, is part of UBC’s ongoing response to this 75-year-old injustice.

According to Mary and her supporters, what happened in 1942 was a symptom of institutionalized racism that continues to affect the daily lives of racialized UBC students and Vancouverites today. In response, they have pushed the university to enact policies and programs that educate the next generation, truly value Asian and Asian-Canadian contributions to the University and society, and ensure something like the events of 1942 can never happen again.

Racism at UBC and in Canada were discussed at length this past October at a Day of Learning hosted by UBC to mark the 75th anniversary of Japanese Canadian internment and the fifth anniversary of the UBC Honorary Degree Ceremony.

We caught up with Mary and her husband, Tosh, over tea in early November. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation.

On UBC’s culpability for the expulsion and subsequent imprisonment of Japanese Canadian students in 1942:

“When I started looking into some of the history, I found that UBC was culpable [for expelling Japanese Canadian students in 1942]. The male students in the Canadian Officers Training Corp were told to leave. One of the 1942 students said to me, ‘When I had to hand in my uniform, [they] told me that we didn’t want any Japs on the campus.’ This is from someone who heard it first-hand. And I found out that the top administrators of UBC all decided that Japanese Canadian men had to leave campus. The Dean of Women gathered all the Japanese Canadian women and told them that UBC would not support them to stay on campus, and so they had to leave too.”

On it taking four years for UBC to recognize the Japanese Canadian students:

“I still think that if I had known then what I know now, it might have happened [earlier]. I learned from the process how the system works. Where the power is, and how to go about getting around it. I think I was too quiet at the beginning, but if it was today, I would not be so quiet.”

On the importance of teaching Japanese Canadian history at UBC:

“For me, teaching Japanese Canadian history is important because, as far as the government was concerned, they just took that chapter out as if it didn’t happen. They just erased it. I think it’s important that we bring that history back and put it where it should be. I think the Canadian people should know that such a horrible event did happen, and to make sure that something like that never happens again. I find that it’s important for UBC to teach this forgotten Canadian history. This is the only university across Canada that is beginning to teach this course.

“I would like [students in my course] to learn about this merciless uprooting, that democracy sometimes fails, and I hope that they will have enough courage to speak out when they learn about injustices to other groups — and not just be a bystander. I want them to be involved in the process of fighting for justice for any group, or any person or any issue.”

On teaching history “the way we lived it”:

“During the incarceration, the government used euphemisms to say that we treated the Japanese Canadians humanely. Apparently, they hired a group of people to create euphemisms [to distort what they were doing to 22,000 innocent Canadians.]

“They used words like evacuate [but] we weren’t in any danger – why did we have to be evacuated? Where were we going to be evacuated to? We were going from a safe place to a not so safe place, like the barn in Hastings Park – who would choose to be evacuated into a barn?!

“Or the word most commonly used is internment. But according to the Geneva Convention, a country cannot intern her own citizens. But they did intern Japanese Canadians by registering [them] as enemy aliens. Therefore, they interned aliens. We were no longer Canadians; we were aliens.

“There are so many words that we’re trying to change so that our story is told the way we lived it. For evacuation, I would like to say incarceration, because we were incarcerated. Imprisoned. We weren’t evacuated; we were forcibly uprooted. We were dispossessed and scattered across Canada.”

On white privilege:

“A lot of Caucasian people will say, ‘I don’t see any racism.’ Well of course they don’t see racism, they never experience it. Whereas we experience it almost everyday. People will say [to me], “Oh my goodness, you speak good English. Where did you learn it?” or “Where did you come from?” And I tell them, I come from Saltspring Island. “No, no, no, I mean where did you really come from?” But I never give them the answer they want.”

On anger and forgiveness:

“I was brought up in a household where forgiveness was the main criteria. My parents always said, ‘Without forgiveness you don’t progress in your life.’ You know what Nelson Mandela said, ‘Forgiveness liberates the soul.’ And that’s exactly what it does. When a person is angry, he or she is always angry. That’s all they are, and that’s where they stay. So, it was not anger [that motivated me to seek justice]. I just had a goal. I just wanted to make sure that the 1942 students were not betrayed again.”

On her parents’ resistance and resilience during their incarceration in WWII:

“My dad and mom [Katuyori Murakami and Kimiko Okano Murakami] always taught us to never give up. Always be proud of who you are, and never let others make you feel less.

“I wrote a few things about my mother. They could have imprisoned her physically, but she had control of her soul. They were not going to destroy her that way. So I wrote:

“She was abandoned by Canada, the country of her birth.
She did not seek good opinions of others.
She knew who she was and honoured that belief.
She only had a few fears.
She was never afraid to stand out to be different.
She believed that courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to walk through it to reach your goal that is important to you.
She did not curse the darkness, instead she lit a candle.
She lived an authentic life on her own terms.
She never betrayed herself or her values.
Her happiness came in giving, and not receiving.
She never played the victim.
She never gave power to someone who wanted to victimize or diminish her.
She never bought into the lie that she was less.
Frederick Faust said, “there is a giant asleep in every person.” That giant leapt out of her when she was just a child.
She and father sacrificed everything to enrich their children’s lives.
They were committed to the survival of the family.
They were always fuelled and energized.
She devoted herself to excellence from the most menial task to the most important.
She chose to deal with the fate that sent her to the prison camps by taking control of how to respond to it.
No one defined her existence.”

On feeling hopeful, despite all odds:

“I feel hopeful. Because when I think of my grandchildren, they are really on the right path. They treat us as their role models, and they’ve seen what we have done, and we’ve always given more in the way of trying to make the world a better place. They do a lot of volunteer work and they are doing a lot of giving, too. I want them to be unselfish about their lives and not just take things for granted, and know that the good life they are living is because of the sacrifices their ancestors made”

On the UBC students they’ve met throughout their campaign:

“Our world has expanded so much [since we got involved with UBC.] We can count hundreds of young people that we’ve met who have overwhelmed us with their brilliance and worldliness. They see the whole picture, whereas we used to be very narrow minded. One of the things I think that we imparted to them is the courage to speak out.”

It’s not too late to register for ACAM 320A: Histories and Legacies of Japanese Canadian Internment, a new course offered in January 2018 by UBC’s Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies Program. This course will be co-taught by Mary Kitagawa and Professor John Price.

From 1941 to 1949, Japanese Canadians faced uprooting, incarceration, and dispossession: a defining instance of racial injustice in Canadian history. This course examines the histories, effects and legacies of the Japanese Canadian experience in the context of First Nations dispossession, anti-Asian racisms and contemporary struggles for minority and migrant rights. Participants will engage with community elders and activists and be encouraged to undertake community-based research. This course is being offered on the 75th anniversary of the uprooting and the 30th anniversary of redress.

For more information, please e-mail