Members of the legislature sat in uncharacteristic silence the day that Naomi Yamamoto, the province’s first Japanese-Canadian MLA, offered an apology for the B.C. government’s role in sending 21,000 British Columbians of Japanese descent to internment camps during the Second World War.
It was one of those rare moments when B.C.’s politicians came together in a moment of reconciliation. The apology was delivered last May with the full backing of the NDP opposition.
This week, two internal investigations into a leaked multicultural outreach plan are expected to be made public, to determine whether government and party business were improperly mixed. The strategy was crafted with the input of senior members of Premier Christy Clark’s staff just months before the apology was delivered. Among other things, the document urged the B.C. Liberal government to score quick political “wins” by identifying and correcting historical wrongs.
The apology for the Japanese internment camps would not have happened without the efforts of Tosh Suzuki, who sat in the public gallery to hear it. Mr. Suzuki, now 78, was just seven years old when a yellow school bus came to take him away from his Pitt Meadows home. He would spend the rest of his youth on the Prairies, missing school to help his family work in sugar-beet fields as they struggled to rebuild their lives.
Mr. Suzuki believes Ms. Yamamoto’s act of contrition on behalf of the province was genuine. But now, having read that devastating document, he questions her government’s sincerity.
It was the eloquent Mr. Suzuki who educated Ms. Yamamoto about the need for the provincial government to own up to its shameful actions, including the eager seizure of fishing boats and other assets from Japanese-Canadians. It was, no doubt, a quick political win in its day.
The federal government has already offered redress to those interned under the War Measures Act. But Ottawa’s measures against Japanese-Canadians were driven by B.C. politicians who publicly demanded it, even when the military and the RCMP saw no threat to national security.
Ms. Yamamoto sat down for an interview in her office last week, seeking to distance her heartfelt apology from her government and her party’s ethnic-outreach plan.
“It infuriates me,” she said. “But I can tell you [the apology] was absolutely not a part of that. … It didn’t have anything to do with the Premier’s office or the B.C. Liberals.”
She recalled how her father, now 85, sat in the public gallery to hear his daughter offer redress for the actions of provincial politicians seven decades earlier. Her father was a student at Point Grey junior secondary when he was booted from cadets and later shipped off to an internment camp, treated as some kind of threat to his country’s security.
She maintains her apology should not be tainted by this strategy from her Premier’s office. But she said reconciliation efforts in the future will be suspect – including the apology that was to be offered this month for the Chinese head tax – unless they are crafted with the complete involvement of the opposition.
Ms. Clark may well escape blame when her deputy minister and her caucus chair deliver their verdicts this week on the ethnic-voter strategy. She has rejected the notion that the tradition of ministerial accountability – which means the elected person in charge resigns even when it is an appointed underling that has committed wrongdoing – applies here.
It is more likely that the B.C. Liberal Party will pay back any public money that was improperly spent on partisan outreach. Perhaps another resignation or firing of those named in the documents will follow.
But none of that can remove the stain from future reconciliation efforts, and perhaps even those in the past.
“I am persuaded [Ms. Yamamoto’s] effort was most genuine and sincere. What I am questioning is, what was going on in the dark halls of the legislature? That’s the question that lingers,” Mr. Suzuki said.