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Interned Japanese Canadians receive degrees

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The music was momentous and appropriate, the gowns flowing and scholarly.

Faculty members marched in procession, led by a man holding a ceremonial mace.

In the audience, cameras flashed and whirred. In most ways, this was a typical spring graduation ceremony at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC).

Except for the graduates; they were unique.

All were elderly - some in their 90s - and of Japanese ancestry. A few were in wheel chairs or walking frames.

The honourary degrees that they received came seventy years after they were forced to leave the Vancouver area, named as "enemy aliens" by their adopted land, Canada, which was at war with Japan.

The Canadian government expelled more than 21,000 people of Japanese descent from its western shores.

At UBC, at least 76 Japanese-Canadian students had to end their studies prematurely. Only now, on a late May afternoon in 2012, were they getting recognition of what they lost.

Wrinkled faces wet with tears, or creased by huge smiles, the old men and one woman sat onstage clutching their parchment degrees, draped in special gowns.

Behind them, stood dozens of relatives representing loved ones who hadn’t lived long enough to see this day. In all 63 former UBC students, living and dead, were commemorated.

"It (the degree) doesn't mean anything to me economically or academically," said 89 year-old Mits Sumiya, one of the day’s graduates, "but it does finally make me feel welcome at a place I’ve always considered my school – UBC".

Sumiya had a successful career as an engineer, once he’d got out of a prisoner of war camp in 1946. At the commencement ceremony, he sat onstage, straining a little to hear the speeches and the tributes paid to him and his fellow graduates.

"I don't blame the university, they were doing what the government told them to do," he said, adding that "it's great that UBC has finally done this".

The ceremony might never have happened if not for the work of one very determined woman.

Seventy-four-year-old retired teacher Mary Kitagawa was surfing the net at her home in Vancouver a few years ago when she read about universities on the US West Coast conferring honourary degrees on Japanese Americans who’d had their education disrupted by internment during World War Two.

"I thought, why haven’t we done this in Canada?" Kitagawa said. "Then I wrote my first letter to UBC."

At first the university was reluctant to right what many consider a historic wrong, Kitagawa said, "but eventually I went to the community and the media and then we saw some movement".

Last November, UBC announced that spring commencement exercises for 2012 would include degrees for those who left the campus in 1942. Plans were also announced for a special Asian studies program and a digital archive about the former students.

Finally a historic wrong was recognised, and in part at least, made right.

Standing on the stage in her traditional robes, UBC Chancellor Sarah Morgan-Sylvestor’s voice cracked with emotion as she looked out at a sea of faces.

"Today is a day for inordinate celebration, for today is a day we celebrate the return of truth ... my warmest congratulations to you all," she said to enthusiastic applause and more than a few tears.

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