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70 years later, internees await a degree of redress

The University of British Columbia Walter C. Koerner Library.

Martin Dee/UBC Public Affairs/Martin Dee/UBC Public Affairs

For Mits Sumiya, the engineering degree he couldn't complete nearly 70 years ago is one last ripple of the injustice Japanese-Canadians faced during the Second World War.

Mr. Sumiya had to leave the University of British Columbia when Japanese-Canadians were ordered away from the West Coast and into internment camps.

Now 88 years old, Mr. Sumiya is hoping the university's senate will grant honorary degrees to him and about 75 other students who were forced to abandon their studies after it debates the issue on Wednesday.

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"It would be the right thing to do," Mr. Sumiya said. "It would be nice if they considered me as one of their [alumni]who was unable to complete his course because of the circumstances."

In 1942, shortly after the start of hostilities with Japan, the Canadian government under the War Measures Act ordered Japanese-Canadians to move inland. More than 20,000 were affected. Some were sent to internment camps, others to labour camps.

Mr. Sumiya, who was born on Bowen Island, just off West Vancouver, had been a member of the Canadian Officer Training Corps and swore his allegiance to the Crown. But he was ordered to turn in his uniform and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Ontario.

When he was released four years later, Mr. Sumiya had neither the time nor the money to re-enter university.

He's hoping UBC will follow the lead of universities south of the border, such as Berkeley, that have bestowed honorary degrees on students who were adversely affected by anti-Japanese sentiment after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It would bring closure to something that's gone on and on and on," he said.

Sally Thorne, chair of the UBC senate's tributes committee and a professor in the university's school of nursing, wouldn't say how interned Japanese-Canadian students will be recognized. A resolution prepared by a working committee will go before the senate during its third regular meeting of the academic year.

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"Recommendations will include providing personal recognition for the estimated 76 UBC students whose studies were disrupted by internment, initiatives to educate future UBC students about this dark episode and efforts by the UBC library to preserve and bring to life the historical record," Dr. Thorne said.

When asked directly if the students would be issued honorary degrees, Dr. Thorne said: "What I can tell you is that I am hopeful that an individual recognition component of some kind will be part of the decision that UBC comes to."

The university has been petitioned to issue the honorary degrees for three years by Mary Kitagawa of the Greater Vancouver Japanese-Canadian Citizens Association.

Ms. Kitagawa, who did not attend UBC, said nothing short of the degrees will do.

"I've got my fingers crossed the senate will decide to do the right thing and honour these students," she said.

Ms. Kitagawa, 77, grew up on Saltspring Island, which lies between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. But her family was sent to several internment camps across British Columbia and Alberta, living in conditions so poor "my parents thought we would all die."

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Ms. Kitagawa said even getting the UBC senate to discuss how to recognize interned Japanese-Canadians hasn't been easy, but she's been driven by the sense of injustice.

She said her sister could have entered UBC if Japanese-Canadians hadn't been pushed away from the Lower Mainland, their properties eventually sold. By the time the family regained its freedom, it made more sense for Ms. Kitagawa's sister to earn a salary than to receive an education.

Although her sister isn't in line to receive the degree, Ms. Kitagawa said she won't give up her fight until those who are entitled to the cap and gown ceremony are invited to one.

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