provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Friday, August 10, 2018

Mary Keiko Kitagawa receives Order of BC

Found out last Saturday while at the Powell Street Festival that Mary Kitagawa has been announced as one of the appointees to the Order of BC. The honour is well-deserved and it was great to see a story in the Star Metro, a free local daily newspaper:

I had the great privilege of being one of the people who wrote a letter of support, so I'm proud to have played a small role in such a humble, self-effacing and yet inspiring woman getting recognition for all that's she has done for others:

To the Committee considering nominees for the Order of BC

I write this letter as a historian of British Columbia history who focuses on the long history of Asian immigration to Canada and the United States. In this capacity, I have worked at the University of British Columbia for the last 15 years, and have served the Province of British Columbia as the Co-Chair for the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council (LIAC) that oversaw the legacy education and public history projects following the BC Legislature’s unanimous apology in 2014 for historical wrongs against Chinese Canadians. I also served as the Co-Chair of the Anniversaries of Change Steering Committee for events in 2007 marking the 100thAnniversary of the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver, as well as an Advisory Board member for the Landscapes of Injustice project at UVic currently examining the removal and dispossession of 23,000 British Columbians of Japanese descent between 1942 and 1949.

I open with this information about who I am as a scholar and public historian in order to emphasize the grounds for which I make the following statement:

Mary Kitagawa is one of the most important individuals in terms of public impact in the last twenty-five years of BC history. 

As a historian, I argue to my students that the great currents of history are borne by mass movements, social changes that reflect the aggregate actions of many people working together in concert or driven by larger shifts in economics and demography. Historians seldom argue now for viewing historical change as the results of the impact of individual “great men” such as political leaders, seeingthese individuals instead as reflections of the broader changes that they come to represent. And yet, even with the de-emphasis on the role of individuals as agents of change, there is no denying that there are some people who nevertheless cannot be considered as anything less than significant historical actors who changed the world. Some of these people do so unintentionally as catalysts or triggers—significant in their impact and yet motivated by their own particular concerns.

Keiko Mary Kitagawa, in contrast, has changed British Columbia through a series of conscious and intentional acts that have had such broad impact that it is stunning to consider that she has done all of this as a grandparent after retiring from a long career as a school teacher. If you have not met Mary Kitagawa, you will not know that she is physically tiny and at first appearance you might easily overlook her in a crowded room. That is what makes her story all the more impressive and unlikely. She is not an elected official who held political office for decades and whose accomplishments are largely due to the demands of the constituents and voters who elected her. She is not a “captain of industry” whose impact on commerce and business large or small was merely the by-product of self-interested desire for personal gainNeither is she a scientist whose discoveries were the results of the curiousity and stated goals of her profession of choice

Mary Kitagawa has changed BC society because shewas seized on two particularly significant occasions to do something merely because she believed it was the right thing to doI say merely, because such moments may pass by each one of us every day of our lives, and whether acted upon or nottheir consequence for our broader society is seldom large. But every once in a while, and in the case of Mary Kitagawa, this belief in the righteousness of your cause can indeed change the world. 

In 2007, just as the City of Vancouver had completed a year of events marking how far we had come and how much we had changed in the century since vicious anti-Asian racism in 1907 had led to days of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese violence and rioting, Mary Kitagawa noticed an announcement that the new Federal Government Building in downtown Vancouver was to be named in honour of former Conservative Member of Parliament Howard Green. Seeing the name triggered a long ago memory, and a quick check of old newspapers confirmed the memory, that Green as an MP during 1942 had been one of the most virulently racist leaders of the political movement to remove Canadians of Japanese descent from coast British Columbia. Mary had been a young child at the time living on Salt Spring Island, and her family had lost all of their possessions and property as the result of the process of removal and exile. Howard Green had been a principal architect not only of the removal, but also of the egregious forced sale of the property and possessions of Japanese Canadians, arguing in particular that seizing theirproperty would leave them without a home to which to return. The effective ethnic cleansing of Japanese Canadians from BC has left a profound impact on our province and on Canada, for which the Federal Government apologized in 1988. So it was with a sense of dismay that Mary Kitagawa, retired schoolteacher, began a petition and campaign to not name the building after Green. The alternative was to honour someone else whose values reflected better a nation which since 1988 had admitted how wrong it had been to listen to and follow the policies of Howard Green and other political leaders who had used racism and the excuse of the attack on Pearl Harbor to implement long-cherished dreams of the racial cleansing of Japanese Canadians in BC

The campaign that Mary began succeeded in rallying enough supporters and persuading enough elected officials to reconsider the name, and the committee that oversaw the naming agreed with her argument, deciding to name the building instead in honour of Douglas Jung, the first Asian Canadian to be elected a Member of Parliament in 1957, 10 years after voting rights had been restored to non-whites in British Columbia and 85 years after they had been taken away in 1872. The name change took place in 2008, after a year in which Mary’s quiet determination and careful research persuaded countless people (many forwhom the name of a building had previously meant little or nothing), to actively care about the name of this building.

Almost immediately after this triumph of democratic, engaged civic participation, Mary Kitagawa noticed another wrong that could be made right, despite the passage of almost 70 years. Seeing that numerous universities in the United States such as Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Washington had granted honorary degrees to Japanese American students who had been removed in 1942 and never been able to return to finish their degrees and graduate, Mary wrote a letter to UBC President Stephen Toope requesting whether the University of British Columbia might do something similar. 

Three long years later, after countless follow up letters had achieved nothing, Mary went public in her request with a story in the Vancouver Sun about her letter and the 76 Japanese Canadian students of UBC who had never been able to finish their degrees. Again, as with the renaming of the Douglas Jung Building, a strong belief in the righteousness of her cause combined with careful research and persuasive reasoning led to wide-scale support and the rapid (if long-delayed) response of the University of British Columbia. In a moving ceremony that President Toope called one of the most memorable and significant events of his 8 years as President of UBC, and which was subsequently designated in 2015 as one of the most significant events of the first century of UBC’s history, the May 2012 graduation ceremony honouring the surviving Japanese Canadian students of 1942 and their families with honorary degrees became a historic and widely reported moment that will be remembered as an iconic symbol of how British Columbians think about their moral relationship to the past

It is this idea, that Mary Kitagawa through her actions both triggered and captured the spirit of our times, that I would emphasize in your deliberations about whether she deserves to be called to the Order of British Columbia. We sit now at a point in time when for fully half of our history as a province legalized white supremacy and racial discrimination ruled in nearly every facet of daily life. We are at the other end of the latter half, when the quiet dismantling of racial apartheid and legalized discrimination has led to a recognition and acknowledgment of what we now repudiate through apologies and reconciliation processes. In this sense, Mary Kitagawa reflects the tenor of our times. And yet in focusing all of us on seemingly mundane or forgotten events—a building named after a man long dead, a number of students now in their 90s who never finished their degrees seven decades before—and infusing them with meaning and purpose and the symbolic weight of all the ideals and dreams of a better society that is inclusive and just, Mary Kitagawa is not the mere product of our circumstances, but the author of our best attempts to live up to our loftiest aspirations and goals. 

We are a better society than we were because of the brave determination and courageous struggle of women such as Mary Kitagawa. Brave because it takes courage to stand up for what you believe is right, especially if you can convince others of its meaningful purpose in the face of nonchalant dismissal. It is precisely because what MaryKitagawa has triggered was so consciously an expression of our best ideals, and yet unfulfilled in the most mundane and apathetic way, that makes her all the more heroic. Every parent who has pleaded with a teenager and been met with an oblivious shrug of the shoulders knows how difficult it is to sustain any belief in the face of such bored dismissal. And yet Mary convinced us at UBC that we should work long days every day for five months searching for the surviving 76 Japanese Canadian students and their families, and amidst our busy schedules to prioritize the planning for this singular event because it would, and did, turn out to be one of the most meaningful and rewarding things we would ever do in our lives. 

This is what Mary Kitagawa accomplished as a retired teacher armed only with the conviction that someone needed to speak for those 76 students who had never been allowed to fulfil their dreams of graduating with a UBC degree. This is the gift she gave all of those who had the privilege and honour of witnessing on that day amidst flowing tears and standing ovations, the 10 surviving students who could travel to Vancouver that sunny day to cross that stage 70 years too late. What Mary showed us is that it is never too late to make right a wrong, and that even seven decades after a world in which racism was so quotidian and mundane, that it is still worth revisiting the darkness and pain of those days for those who suffered so that we can remind ourselves of just how far we have come, and at what cost it was that we took so long to get here. 

I have been a part of a number of moments over the last two decades when recognizing and reckoning with our past has become a necessary act of atonement for moving forward together. That is the era we are in now, and it requires moments of iconic inspiration to insure that these acts of contrition are substantive and genuinely forward looking rather than easy dismissals of the past as dead and gone. Mary Kitagawa gave us the gift of bringing the past alive so that we can see its relevance to us today as a beacon for moving forward. Mary inspired in so many of us a clarion clarity about who we aspire to be in our struggles for a just and inclusive society. That is why her quiet acts of righteous determination have had such a profound and wide impactThat is why she is, in my judgment as a historian, one of the individuals who has had the most significant impact in BC over the last two decades on a sense of who we are and when we are in our long history as a society. That is why she deserves to be included in the Order of BC.

Sincerely,Dr. Henry YuAssociate Professor, Department of History, UBCPrincipal, St. John’s College, UBC