Asian Heritage Month: An interview with Art Miki
Art Miki was born in British Columbia but mostly grew up in Manitoba, where he attended the Universty of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba and pursued a careeer in education. In 1984 Art Miki became president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians. As president, he played a pivotal role in the effort to get redress from the federal government for the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. The stories of the internent of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and the ensuing struggle for redress is shared at the Museum in our Canadian Journeys gallery.
Art Miki has advocated for human rights and racial inclusion not just on behalf of the Japanese Canadian community, but also on behalf of all Canadians. He served as a citizenship judge and has also worked for many years with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in Toronto. For the second consecutive year, he is working with the Museum to present public programming for Asian Heritage Month. I recently talked with Art Miki about Asian Heritage Month, his achievements over the years and how he thinks we can all foster racial inclusion and respect for human rights.1
Is Asian Heritage Month important to you? If yes, why is it?
For me personally it is very important, because as a person of Asian descent, it’s really an opportunity for us to share our music, arts and heritage and also recognize the contributions of Asian Canadians to Canadian society. So it’s a way of showcasing our talent, our abilities and to bring it to the attention of the Canadian public.
Last year you led the Museum’s public programming for Asian Heritage Month and you are doing so again this year. Why is it important to you to include the public in this event?
I guess that’s the whole point of Asian Heritage Month, really – to reach out to other Canadians to show them the kind of contributions that are being made by the Asian community in Canadian society. Also, in the field of arts, we think it’s taken for granted even within our own communities. Really our cultures are so different and they should be shared with other Canadians. And so that’s the intent – making all Canadians appreciate the kind of cultures Asian Canadians bring to Canada.
As President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, you fought for and won redress from the Canadian government for the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. What did that achievement mean to you, and what do you think it meant to the Japanese Canadian community?
The redress settlement certainly was the pinnacle of the efforts of Japanese Canadians to have the injustices of the Second World War recognized, because I think many of the community members felt that they had done nothing wrong. And yet, they were being singled out. I think there was a feeling of guilt – that they must have done something wrong to be treated the way they were. And so, the apology, the acknowledgement and the compensation really said to them that they weren’t at fault. Therefore I think it lifted a lot of guilt and burdens for the humiliation and suffering they went through. So, it was important for our community and me personally to be involved in the redress movement. It is certainly something that I cherish in terms of my experience. The Japanese are a very small community – that we numbered less than 100,000 in our country and yet could have this achievement done by a small group is certainly a realization that Canada is a great country. Even a minority group such as ours can make a mark in Canadian society.
Redress is only one part of the work you have done for human rights and racial inclusion. What other achievements are you most proud of?
Well, one of the things that I’m really pleased about is the establishment of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, because that came out of our redress agreement. It was a way of giving back to Canadian society something from the agreement. This is a national foundation and yet it was in memory of the many people who had already passed away within our own community who did not see redress, so it commemorated their involvement as well. For me it’s a real legacy by the community to the Canadian public.
The other part that I’m really pleased about is my term as a Canadian citizenship judge. I was in that role for ten years and certainly had the opportunity to meet many new Canadians and hear their stories. I recognize anyone who becomes a Canadian citizen is really proud of that fact and hopefully it’s a lesson for the rest of us who maybe don’t appreciate our citizenship as much.
Are there any stories about your time as a citizenship judge that stand out in your mind?
I guess there are a couple of stories. I recall the story of a gentleman from Bosnia who became a Canadian citizen. The way he tells the story, it was by accident. He met someone from Winnipeg while in Europe, when he was in Germany, who suggested maybe he come to Canada as a landed immigrant. He said he finally applied not knowing much about Canada and when he went to a Canadian embassy to find out whether he could become a landed immigrant and they accepted him, they asked him where he wanted to go. He said he really didn’t know anything except about the person he’d met from Winnipeg, so he came to Winnipeg. He then got involved with the Running Room – he was doing the marathon and he began to get really involved in marathons across not only Canada, but North America. One of the things he said to me was: “I always carry a Canadian flag”, because of the fact he’s proud to be a Canadian. What stood out for me most was the fact that when he ran in the Manitoba marathon a number of years ago, he crossed the finish line and his Canadian-born girlfriend was waiting for him and they got married in the stadium that afternoon, in front of a lot of people. That made the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press and it’s a story that’s really heartwarming. Not many people would go to that length, but certainly, that story stands out for me.
What do you think are the next steps we need to take as a society to foster racial inclusion and respect for human rights?
It’s a very difficult question that we’ve been pondering for a long time – how do we overcome it? I just attended a Truth and Reconciliation2 event not too long ago and it seems to me the way that you get around this is to start talking to each other. Having those open dialogues with people of various backgrounds. In that way I think you begin to learn about each other and that would be the way of really fostering racial inclusion. It seems like a simplistic approach, but likely we don’t do enough of that – of meeting people of different backgrounds and just sharing stories with them and looking at their aspirations and also their frustrations sometimes, in adapting to Canadian society. I think it’s that sensitivity – towards their stories and their experiences – that we all need to share with each other and for me that would likely be the way to do it. You can’t change people’s minds but you can certainly change their attitudes by having some positive experiences.
1 Biographical information about Art Miki comes from The Bulletin, a journal of the Japanese Canadian community, history + culture: http://jccabulletin-geppo.ca/art-miki-a-life-in-service/