Mary Kitagawa’s Acceptance Speech upon receiving an Honorary Degree – Nov. 26, 2020

President Ono, Chancellor Point, Honored guests and graduates of 2020.  I acknowledge that we are on the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueum nation.  

I accept this honorary degree from UBC with humility and gratitude.   I would like to receive it in memory of my parents Katsuyori and Kimiko Okano Murakami.  They have been my role models since my birth.  All that I am today is because of them.  I would also like to share this honour with my husband Tosh who has walked every step of the way with me to seek justice for those who could not do so themselves.

Congratulations to the graduates who have achieved success in earning your diplomas today.  I hope that your dreams and goals will be fulfilled in the future.  However, along the way you might encounter a few roadblocks that may force you to take a detour.  Detours are opportunities that offer you new experiences that may lead you to greater successes.  So, with courage, persevere and move on.

I would like to share with you, a story about the 76 UBC students who were Canadians of Japanese descent.  They were registered on campus in 1942.  When the Pacific War began, they were labeled as Enemy Aliens by the Canadian Government because they looked like the enemy and were swept away from the UBC campus.  Except for two professors, Henry Angus and E. H. Morrow no one defended them.  The students were stunned: they had not committed any crime and were not even given the right to defend themselves.  The War Measures Act invoked by the Government took away all the rights from Canadians of Japanese descent.  Along with the 22,000 in their community, the students, like their parents were uprooted, dispossessed, dispersed, enslaved, sent to POW camp or deported to war torn Japan.  Many fathers and adult sons were separated from their families and sent to several road building locations as free labour.  Many male UBC students were not exempt from this group.  Nineteen year old Mits Sumiya, a second year student refused to comply with the order.  Two RCMP officers came to arrest him at his house.  He stood his ground by saying that he knows his rights.  He told them, “I was born on Bowen Island; I am a Canadian citizen and a British subject”.  He was lifted off his feet and dragged away with just the clothes on his back and sent to the POW camp in Angler, Ontario.  He did not see his parents for over four years.  At that time, no university in Canada accepted Japanese Canadian students.  McGill refused them by saying, “On the frank contention, that serfs of an inferior race deserve no education”.  However, many years later when some universities began to open its doors to Japanese Canadian students they accomplished phenomenal successes.  They became engineers, medical doctors, dentists, business men, teachers, nurses, researchers, psychiatrists, etc.  From the state of destitution, they rose from poverty to prove to Canada that they were worthy; capable of contributing to the wellbeing and enrichment of the country of their birth that once betrayed them.

In early May of 2008, I watched on the internet a University of Washington graduation ceremony.  The graduates were all very elderly Japanese Americans.  As students, they were expelled from campus in 1942 when US president Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6099 when the Pacific war began.  All of the US universities along the Pacific coast were honouring them in person or posthumously.

Knowing that there were Japanese Canadian students at UBC at that time, I sent a request to ask if UBC could do the same.  However, the Senate Tributes Committee denied my request.  After three and a half years of prodding, they voted unanimously on November 16, 2011 to acknowledge and honour these students.   A special convocation was held at the Chan Centre on May 30, 2012.  Only twenty-three were still alive.  They were in their late eighties or in their nineties.  Only ten were physically able to travel to attend the ceremony along with relatives representing the students who were no longer alive.  The ceremony was an emotional event for members of our community.  Tears flowed as if a dam had broken, spilling out the hopes and dreams that these students held in their hearts for seventy long years.   The education that was denied to the students of 1942 was now symbolically theirs.  The diplomas presented to them or to a relative became keys to allow them to finally become members of the UBC Alumni.  To honour their memory, a new minor course in the Faculty of Arts was created.  It is called, Asian Canadian and Asian Migration course now known as ACAM.

The purpose of telling this story of the seventy-six students was to encourage you to have the courage to deal with difficult challenges you might encounter in your lives.  Every Japanese mother sending her children off to school each day tell them: gambatte kuda sai: please persevere.  So, to you the graduates, gambatte neh!

Thank you UBC for this honour.

Keiko Mary Kitagawa