In spring 1942, many UBC students were working on their final exams and finishing their school year. But not all of them would receive their degrees: Japanese-Canadian students at the school were forced, as were their families and all other Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia, to leave their homes and go to internment camps across the country. Today, 76 Japanese-Canadian students whose education at UBC was halted when they were exiled are being granted honorary degrees from the school.
The plan to grant degrees to all Japanese-Canadians who were pushed out of their studies began in 2008 when Mary Kitagawa wrote to UBC and suggested the measure. Mary is a retired Vancouver teacher who was also sent to camps with family members during the war. Although she did not attend UBC herself, she was inspired by similar tributes at schools in the U.S.
Her request led the school to offer the students honorary degrees (some of them posthumous), but it also brought up some ugly memories of that period in Canadian history. While some American universities protested the inclusion of Japanese-American students in forced removals during the Second World War, only two faculty members at UBC spoke out against the process at the time.
Speaking about his school's reaction to the internment of Japanese-Canadian students during the war, UBC President Stephen Toope said "the sad thing for the university is that so few people stood up in their defense. There were some, but given the role of the university as a model for human rights, and as a model for respect of individuals and cultures, I would have hoped that there would be more resistance".
But although the occasion has raised the spectre of a dark time in Canada's past, Mary Kitagawa says that almost everyone who was contacted with the news that they would be granted an honorary degree reacted with joy: "Every phone call we made, there was joy. You know, there was so much joy in their voices. They just couldn't believe it."
The degree ceremony takes place today from 4-6 p.m. (BC time) at the Chan Centre for Performing Arts in BC. It will be streamed live online at this site.
Mary spoke about her reasons for starting the honorary degree push, and her experiences speaking to former students and their family members. Check that video out below:
And UBC President Stephen Toope talks about the school's decision to confer the degrees, and shares his views on the Japanese internment, in the video below: