05/07/2012 07:05 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Japanese Canadian Internments: B.C. Makes Formal Apology After 70 Years


VICTORIA - British Columbia's first elected Japanese-Canadian politician wiped tears from her eyes Monday as she looked up at her eighty-five-year-old father seated in the legislature to witness an apology 70 years overdue.

North Vancouver-Lonsdale Liberal MLA Naomi Yamamoto said the emotions poured out despite her best efforts to maintain her composure during the apology introduction.

"I actually read that speech over several times and I didn't tear up at all," said the advanced education minister in a celebration after B.C. politicians voted unanimously to apologize to the Japanese-Canadian community for the internment of thousands of people during the Second World War.

"But what I did was I looked up at my dad and when I saw my dad there I just thought, oh ...," said Yamamoto, who dabbed her eyes with a napkin. "Just thinking about it now makes me ..."

The post-apology celebration turned into an all-party gathering as members of the Liberal and Opposition New Democrat caucuses crowded into Yamamoto's office to congratulate Japanese-Canadian internees.

The federal government offered Japanese Canadians an apology for past injustices against them in 1988, but it took British Columbia until Monday to say sorry for its actions 70 years ago, she said.

Up to 22,000 Japanese-Canadians, mostly living in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, had their property seized and were placed in internment camps in the province's Interior and across Western Canada or deported to Japan. Eighty per cent of them had been born in Canada.

The Second World War ended in 1945, but Japanese-Canadians were not legally permitted to return to B.C.'s west coast until 1949, the year they were also granted the right to vote.

Yamamoto said her father, Mas Yamamoto, after years interned at the Kootenay community of Lemon Creek, returned to the Lower Mainland as a 22-year-old. He completed his education through correspondence and ended up with a doctorate degree from the University of British Columbia.

"He is in the House today, at a different time in our history," said Yamamoto, pausing to regain her composure. "This is the story of one small family, the scope and breadth of what was done to so many Canadians by virtue of their ethnicity is difficult to contemplate through the lens of today."

The federal government issued an internment order under the War Measures Act that created a 100-mile wide restricted area along the B.C. coast. The B.C. government of the time actively pushed Ottawa to remove Japanese-Canadians from the West Coast and fostered anti-Japanese-Canadian sentiment across the province.

"This is a historical injustice for which our provincial government of this time was directly responsible," Yamamoto said. "Some of the interned citizens were decorated veterans from the First World War who had been recognized for their bravery and sacrifice for Canada just a couple of decades earlier."

Toshio Suzuki, who was seven years old when his family was moved from their Pitt Meadows, B.C. berry farm to farm sugar beets in Manitoba for almost a decade, was elated with the apology.

"I wrote a letter to minister Yamamoto and outlined some very concise reasons why an apology would be appropriate," he said. "One of them was as the first Japanese-Canadian person elected to the B.C. legislature, she would be the most appropriate. And she did a wonderful job."