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UBC awards degrees to interned Japanese Canadian students

05/30/2012 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/30/2012 05:12 EDT

The University of British Columbia is bestowing degrees on 76 Japanese Canadians and Canadians of Japanese descent who were forced off the campus as students following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour.

A special ceremony Wednesday recognized and honoured the students, whose university experience was disrupted when they were uprooted from the B.C. coast and exiled to internment camps in the province's interior and across the country.

One of them, Mits Sumiya, wanted to become an engineer but spent four years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Ontario instead.

Sumiya said that he doesn't blame UBC for what happened to him.

"They didn't really kick me out," he said. "The government made it impossible for me to get back."

Sumiya and nine other former students were back on campus Wednesday afternoon to accept degrees.

While just 23 of the 76 former UBC students are still alive and only nine will be attend the ceremony, family members will accept the honorary degrees on behalf of the others.

Official academic degrees will also be re-conferred for the students who completed their studies but missed their graduation ceremonies because of the internment.

For Sumiya the recognition from the university means a lot.

"The university is now opening its arms welcoming us back as part of their alumni," he said.

"A little belatedly maybe, but they are doing it and I feel the difference."

This moment follows a long struggle.

Mary Kitigawa of the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association says Canada turned its back on these students when the war broke out.

"Too bad they looked like the enemy, but they weren't the enemy — they were Canadians," Kitigawa said.

The attack on Pearl Harbour prompted the Canadian government to remove 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent — 14,000 of whom were born in Canada — from a 160-kilometre “protected” strip along the B.C. coast.

The government also seized and sold the homes, property and personal belongings from the interned families.

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