At 87, Henry Sugiyama is finally going to arrive on the campus of the University of British Columbia the way he had hoped to as a teenager. As a student.
In 1942, when Dr. Sugiyama was 15, he and his family were among the 21,000 Japanese-Canadians who were removed from B.C.’s coastal areas under the cover of Canada’s War Measures Act. After relocating to Kamloops, the star student continued high school, and his teachers encouraged him to write entrance exams to UBC. He won a scholarship, but UBC rejected his application. The war was over, but Japanese-Canadians had been presented with a choice: move away from the coast or go to Japan. The teen could not live on or near the UBC campus. The only university that would take him was the University of Manitoba, where he earned a medical degree.
“I was lucky in a way. UBC did not have a medical program at the time. If I had gone there, I would not have become a doctor,” Dr. Sugiyama said.
On Tuesday, Dr. Sugiyama will attend the first class in a new program in Asian Canadian and Asian Migration studies. Its opening completes the promises the university made to recognize its role in the province’s internment policy, first awarding honorary degrees to 76 students who did not finish their diplomas as a result of the removals, and vowing to preserve and teach the history of that time.
The program is not a form of atonement, although with courses such as Chinese Migration, it memorializes the experiences of those who Canada has at times shunned. Instead, it will try to teach students that choices are always available: to speak against exclusion or to abet it.
“It’s not about just remembering the past. It’s not about, ‘You should feel guilty, you should feel bad.’ That is actually a bankrupt form of historical thinking in my mind,” said Henry Yu, a history professor at UBC who was a member of the committee that organized the granting of the honorary degrees. “We are trying to have our students look around and say, ‘Who am I? Am I Ellis Morrow or am I Gordon Shrum?’”
Prof. Morrow was one of the few people on campus in the 1940s who spoke against the removals, helping his students finish degrees by correspondence. Mr. Shrum was a senior university administrator who played a part in the decision to go further than the government’s removal order and strip students in Canadian Officer Training Corps of their designation.
“We can’t tell right now which way you should act, but what you can do is think about the past and not just dismiss and say everyone was racist and now we’re not any more,” Dr. Yu said. “What work do we need to do, in maybe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the way we deal with First Nations? What is a temporary foreign worker, how are we treating Filipino nannies? What is it to be a just society?”
Dr. Sugiyama said the experience of removal affected his whole life. His father eventually rebuilt parts of his business, working in the fishing industry as an exporter. After finishing medical school, Dr. Sugiyama moved to Toronto and worked in the city’s Cabbagetown area at a time when its name was still identified with illness, overcrowding and poverty.
“At the time, it was a slum area, I wanted to give back,” he said.
Some things about the choices adults made he will never understand. Why his teachers in Kamloops, for example, raised his hopes. “I don’t know why they encouraged me to write the exams. They did not do anything to help me after.”
His daughter was awarded the Order of Canada for her achievements as a lawyer and for civic engagement, so the country has changed, Dr. Sugiyama said, even as he believes some groups are still disadvantaged, particularly aboriginal students.
The director of the new UBC program, Chris Lee, says students enrolling have only to look on campus to understand the program’s continuing relevance. Students who are struggling with English, for example, are still stigmatized. “Like many Canadian universities, our students have family histories that have migration in them. This program is a way of recognizing that our students lead global lives.”
Dr. Henry Sugiyama poses with his daughter Constance, and wife Joanne.
Dr. Henry Sugiyama, 69 years after being denied entry at UBC because although Canadian he was of Japanese descent, has become the first student admitted in the university’s new program in Asian Canadian studies.
He went on to become a doctor, run a successful practice in Toronto and raise a family. The 87-year-old is now retired.
In high school in Kamloops, where the family had moved after being forced off the West Coast in 1942, Sugiyama earned an entrance scholarship to UBC.
It was 1945 and the war had just ended, but Japanese Canadians were to be considered “enemy aliens” until 1949.
UBC rejected him, as did the universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta. The University of Manitoba accepted him into medicine, despite the huge number of war veterans returning who had been granted free education benefits.
“The Second World War ended that summer and I was no longer an ‘enemy of the state,’” Sugiyama said. “There was no real reason why UBC couldn’t take me.
“To this day, I cannot fail to admire the courage of the admission committee of the U of M for accepting an ‘enemy alien’ when so many other Canadian universities found it so easy to simply refuse.”
His father and mother arrived in Vancouver in 1912 and built up a handful of businesses.
In 1942, the family — along with more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians forced out of their homes on the West Coast by the federal War Measures Act — was uprooted to Kamloops.
“My father, who was a successful businessman, had all his properties confiscated,” Sugiyama said, “including his home, cameras, radios, automobiles, his fleet of six large fishing boats and three companies dealing with the fishing industry.”
Sugiyama was a 14-year-old Grade 9 student at Templeton Junior High at the time and had fulfilled all the requirements to earn the school’s highest award, the Silver T, but the school claimed he had been expelled and never gave it to him.
After writing two letters to the school, however, in 2013 he received a small banner to take the place of the Silver T and a copy of a commencement speech by the principal, Aaron Davis, acknowledging the “shameful act” committed by Templeton in 1942.
Sugiyama received the letter on Dec. 7 last year, 72 years to the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
His father, he said, “never gave up his love for this country and never gave up hope that his family would succeed and make a better country.”
As if to reaffirm that sentiment, Sugiyama’s daughter Constance, a lawyer, was in 2013 appointed a member of the Order of Canada for her contributions to the Japanese Canadian community.
From enemy alien to Canada’s highest civilian honour in one lifetime: Sugiyama said he knows his late father would be proud.
Henry Sugiyama with his wife and daughter. Photo UBC.
Like thousands of other students, Henry Sugiyama received an offer of admission from UBC this year. The difference is, Sugiyama is an 87-year-old doctor from Toronto, and has been waiting 69 years for his offer.
Sugiyama was a high school student in Vancouver at the time of Pearl Harbour, and was one of tens of thousands of Japanese-Canadians who were forced to leave the coast of B.C. for the interior — in Sugiyama’s case, Kamloops. After attending high school in Kamloops for the remainder of his degree, Sugiyama was encouraged to apply for an entrance scholarship (in addition to regular admission) at UBC — despite it being within the ‘protected zone’ (in which, generally, people of Japanese origin were forbidden to reside.) He wrote the exam and performed at a level that should have earned him the award. Like many universities at the time, however, UBC had discriminatory policies against Japanese students. This, in combination with federal policies which maintained the forced relocation of Japanese-Canadians even after the end of the war, led to Sugiyama being rejected by UBC.Sugiyama was accepted by the University of Manitoba, one of relatively few institutions that did not reject people of Japanese background outright. He graduated with a medical degree in 1952 and practiced in Toronto. Now retired, Sugiyama has received his long awaited — and deserved — acceptance letter from UBC. He’s the first person to be admitted to UBC’s new minor program, “Asian Canadian and Asian migrations studies,” which is part of a movement by UBC to acknowledge and honour the Japanese-Canadians whose studies were impeded, cut short or prevented by discriminatory policies in the 1940s. Sugiyama will be travelling to the UBC campus on September 23 for a symbolic first day of class.
This action by UBC is part of a broad reconciliation policy that has been ongoing for years, both within the university and throughout Canada as a whole. Though these attempts at making amends have come far too late for some, and are too little recompense for others, it is good that UBC is making efforts to recognize the injustices that were suffered by many students (and applicants) for crimes that they did not commit.