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Defenders for Human Rights
Arthur Miki

Arthur Miki Equality and Redress

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GRADE LEVELS = 7 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Six 60 minute class periods

“If it could happen to us, it could happen to you.”

Arthur Miki didn’t understand the extent of the wrongs against his community until he was in his 20s.

It began when Arthur learned his parents had been forcibly removed from their home and property and sent to camps in British Columbia in the early 1940s. His father, born in Canada, didn’t receive his citizenship until well into his adulthood – three years after the war.

Arthur didn’t fully appreciate why until he looked through British Columbia’s provincial archives. As internment was happening, and in later years, government officials would often say that the action was carried out for “security.”

The documents, says Arthur, told a different, darker story of economic prejudice and racism.

“Many British Columbians began to say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of these Japanese. They’re taking over. They’re taking over these different areas.’ So as a result, when the war came, it became a good excuse to remove the Japanese.”

Arthur knew something had to be done. He wanted Japanese Canadians to get compensation for the internment.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he kept running up against a brick wall: the same response of “we don’t care.”

After years without progress, patience was running thin and tempers were short among the negotiation team: why keep going? Even some of their fellow Japanese Canadians, fearing further discrimination, were opposed to the campaign.

“You always get the detractors. You always get the people who will not support you but will fight you. … Not everyone is thinking the same way.”

Arthur knew they had to keep struggling, that Japanese Canadians had been rebuilding their lives for the past forty years. Acknowledgement, apology, and compensation, he felt, were essential.

He didn’t know how to make it happen until a senior member of the negotiation team spoke up.

“We’ve got to continue,” the man said. “You know what? Canadians, if they knew what really happened, would support you.”

Light bulb.

Internment couldn’t just be a Japanese Canadian issue. It had to be a Canadian human rights issue.

Arthur began to recruit, establishing a coalition of Canadians. That coalition included writers and churches, mayors and labour groups, professors and civil liberties groups, all from different Canadian backgrounds.

“Sometimes you need to support each other as a group. Then you become a powerful force,” he says. “If you try it by yourself, you’re sometimes going down a stream. That was the best move that we made.”

Progress began. Between 1982 and 1986, the percentage of Canadians who felt that Japanese Canadians should receive redress – remedy or compensation for a wrong – rose from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.

The coalition also invited other minority groups, which led to later collaborations and apologies, most notably the government’s 2008 apology for the residential schools.

Activism runs deep in Arthur’s blood. He was 15 when the city of Winnipeg claimed that his hockey team had raised money for equipment illegally and threatened to confiscate it.

Arthur didn’t just fight back. He went all the way to the top. He knocked on the mayor of Winnipeg’s office door.

“He heard our story and finally he said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll look after it.’ I thought, ‘Well, sometimes, if you go to the top, things can get done.’ … It was corrected by a visit to the big boss.”

Arthur would go straight to the top again twenty years later, and listen in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney publicly apologized on behalf of the government for Japanese Canadian internment. This time, knocking on the door of the biggest office in the building meant that each Japanese Canadian who had lost their property during the war could apply for up to $21,000 in compensation.

That moment, Arthur says, made the twenty years of fighting worth it.

“The government was saying, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. It was not your fault. It was our fault.’ And that makes so much of a difference for those individuals who felt for many years we must have done something wrong to be treated the way we were.”

There’s a long way to go. Arthur still feels the racism of older times, thirty years down the line.

“It’s a lot more hidden,” he says. “At one time, people used to call you, ‘You Jap,’ or whatever. I mean, that was pretty common. Nowadays people wouldn’t dare say that, because it’s not acceptable anymore.”

“The whole concept of racism has been altered, but the feelings are still there. The feelings still exist in people, where they can’t accept someone who might be different.”

This is subtler and often less intentional racism, which Arthur says is harder to fight. But he says that team-minded strategy to contain and destroy it is easier to play out now.

“Things in our society have changed today,” Arthur says. “If there is an injustice, you have the internet. You have people knowing about it right away, and you can mobilize people to support it or not support it. In those days, things that happened were pretty much kept quiet.”

Things have changed for the Japanese Canadian community too. Ultimately, Arthur feels, the redress has changed the community for the better.

“There was a period of time when people in my community didn’t want to be Japanese,” he says. “Some of them even changed their name so that people would not recognize them being Japanese, because it was such a negative thing. Today it’s different. People are very proud of who they are.”

Arthur still looks to the words of that man in his negotiation group, more than 25 years later. They still ring true.

“If you believe it was wrong,” the senior told him, “people will support you.”

“Just because I look Japanese, it doesn’t mean I just recently came to the country. We’ve been here for many years, but in that period of time, there was a lot of discrimination that occurred. I try to reflect that.”

“If you don’t have the right to vote, you don’t even have a voice. And why would any politician support you if you don’t have a voice? So, that was the kind of situation we were in. … These were people born in this country who couldn’t even have the right (to vote). My father finally got his citizenship in 1948, although he was born here. Seems strange.”

“It’s demeaning to the individual to be treated differently because you look different, speak different, have different kinds of religious practices, etc. So, for me, as people, we should be able to recognize that we all have differences that should be, I would say, celebrated by recognizing that it’s important to that individual.”