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The Global Search for Education: Filmmaker Maryka Omatsu Exposes the Racism Behind Japanese Canadian Internment in British Columbia


From 1895 – 1950, British Columbia passed 170 anti-Asian laws beginning with denying Chinese, First Nations and Japanese the rights of citizenship. The forced internment of Japanese Canadians began in 1942 during World War II when over 22,000 Japanese Canadians were stripped of their homes, possessions and businesses in the name of national security.  The majority were Canadian citizens by birth.

Maryka Omatsu’s film, Swimming Upstream, which audiences can screen on the Planet Classroom Network YouTube Channel this month comes at a time when the traumatic impact of racism and discrimination against any targeted group is making global headlines and the Japanese Canadian community continues its Redress talks with the British Columbia Government.

The Global Search for Education welcomes Director Maryka Omatsu.

Maryka, why did you make your film, Swimming Upstream?

I made Swimming Upstream in 2018 to set out the Japanese Canadians’ claim for Redress against the Province of British Columbia. In a previous life, when I was a newly minted lawyer, I helped negotiate the Japanese Canadians’ $400 Million Redress settlement against the Federal Government  Then, bam, out of the blue, 40 years later, the University of Victoria’s Landscapes of Injustice collective proved that a more virulent and nefarious underbelly of greedy and racist British Columbian politicians with the support of the electorate had orchestrated our demise.  This new information, made public 4 years ago, angered my community and the B.C. Redress campaign was launched.

We learned that British Columbia had prompted the Federal Government to use the draconian powers of the War Measures Act that resulted in the removal of 22,000 Japanese Canadians in 1942 from their homes and businesses on the west coast.  Today, this policy is called “ethnic cleansing”.   We learned that the City of Vancouver wanted the property owned by Japanese Canadians in Japan town and that Vancouver started the expropriation snowball rolling that resulted in the total dispossession of all property and possessions owned by Japanese Canadians.  Price Waterhouse estimated  that the seizure of Japanese Canadian businesses, farms, homes, boats, cars, etc. was worth over $400 Million.  This dispossession was the second largest in Canada’s history; the first, of course, being the seizure of Aboriginal lands.   During the war, British Columbia  held public auctions and 90,000 belongings were sold to happy British Columbians who got a bargain at the expense of their former neighbours.

What has been the impact of Swimming Upstream?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  I have been a lawyer and judge for over 40 years, and my 15-minute film conveys more than a thousand minutes of legal argument.

Swimming Upstream is published by the Nikkei National Museum and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation websites.  In 2019, it was shown at Toronto’s Community Film Festival, where it won the Making a Difference Award.

Historically, the Japanese Canadian community operates by consensus.  The National Association of Japanese Canadians, our community’s voice, conducted  an extensive consultation process.  The community was asked:  “What should the Government of British Columbia do to redress its history of racial discrimination and unjust actions that devastated the Japanese Canadian community?” My film was shown at each public event across the country.  The community consensus was published in a report entitled Recommendations for Redressing Historical Wrongs Against Japanese Canadians in British Columbia.   This report was delivered to Premier John Horgan in 2019.

What do you see as the future for your community?

My community will never return to the insular group that we were in our first 70 years in Canada.  In my view, all ethnic communities in a multicultural country such as Canada cannot help but change over time.  However, our DNA and cultural assimilation were put on speed dial by a racist agenda.

The combination of 5 years of incarceration (1942-47) and the closure of 57 Japanese language schools; the total dispossession of 2 generations’ accumulated worth of property and possessions;  and in 1947,  the removal either from British Columbia or from Canada, have resulted in the community’s near obliteration.  There is no Japan town in Canada, Japanese Canadians from the 3-5th generation cannot speak or read Japanese and there is a 90% intermarriage rate.  Many of the 5th generation are of 25% Japanese heritage.  I have described my community as dinosaurs, forcibly marching to extinction to the drum beat of racist government actions.

What Redress is the Japanese Canadian community seeking from the BC Government?

The community is seeking five remedies for the wrongs done.   1)  Provide programs for the health and wellness of the survivors, those born before April 1, 1949 (which is the date that Japanese Canadians received rights of citizenship); 2) Take concrete steps to combat hate and racial discrimination against any targeted group with a formal acknowledgment of the wrongs done by the British Columbia Government to Japanese Canadians; 3) Embed anti-racism studies in the Province’s school curricula highlighting amongst others, the history of Japanese Canadians; 4) Restore Japanese Canadian heritage sites, such as the incarceration camps; and  5) Create a community legacy fund for nurturing Japanese Canadian culture and community re-building.

What do you hope that viewers will take away from Swimming Upstream?

I made Swimming Upstream to make the Japanese Canadian case against British Columbia and expose the Province’s  deep racist roots.  From 1895-1950, British Columbia passed 170 anti-Asian laws beginning with denying Chinese, First Nations and Japanese the rights of citizenship.  World War II provided the opportunity to rid British Columbia of Japanese Canadians and take everything that they owned.

I hope that viewers will side with Japanese Canadians who were held under the boot of the state.  I want them to be outraged, to support the Japanese Canadian community in its Redress talks with the British Columbia Government and to speak out against racism against any targeted group.

Thank you Maryka.

C.M. Rubin and Maryka Omatsu

Don’t Miss Swimming Upstream (curated by Commffest) now screening on the Planet Classroom Network YouTube Channel.

This content was originally published here.

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