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Interview: Judge Maryka Omatsu

Maryka Omatsu was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 1993. It was a time when the Canadian judiciary was composed of few women and even fewer minorities, and she became the first woman of East Asian heritage to be appointed to any Canadian court. Prior to her appointment she was a lawyer for 16 years, practicing human rights, environmental, and criminal law. She worked for all levels of government, taught a course at Ryerson University and at Lanzhou University in China, and lectured in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan. She also served as the Chair of the Ontario Human Rights Appeals’ Tribunal, as a referee for the Law Society of Upper Canada on client disputes, and as a member of the Ontario Government’s Fair Tax Commission on women’s issues.

Ever mindful of her roots, Judge Omatsu was a founding member of Sodan-kai, an organization whose goal was to educate Japanese Canadians in Toronto about redress for wartime wrongs. In the 1980s, she was a key member of the negotiating team for the National Association of Japanese Canadians that fought for, and ultimately won, an official apology and redress for the wartime wrongs visited upon the community during and after World War Two.

Following the Redress settlement, Judge Omatsu wrote Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience. With a forward by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, the book is an in-depth examination of the campaign for justice, beginning with the call to come to Ottawa for the signing, and ending with a reflection on the ramifications of the settlement, its positive outcomes, and its failings. In between, it is a fascinating first-hand account of the many twists and turns that led to the successful conclusion of the campaign on September 22, 1988. The book is also intensely personal, recounting the story of the author’s own odyssey to rediscover her family’s past in both Japan and Canada.

“When my father died in 1981 at the age of eighty, we were virtual strangers. Our five-decade gap in ages was widened by a cultural century’s divide. With barely a language in common to bridge Japan’s Meiji era (1868-1912) and the twentieth century, we existed in the same house as if in two separate time capsules. Now, a decade later, I am just beginning to know and like the man.”

—Maryka Omatsu, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and
the Japanese Canadian Experience

The book went on to win the Prime Minister’s Award for Publishing and the Laura Jamieson Prize for the “best feminist book” in 1992. Bittersweet Passage was translated into Japanese and published in Japan in 1994.

In 2010, the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, of which she was a founder, presented Judge Omatsu with its first Life Time Achievement Award. In 2013, Judge Omatsu also became the first Canadian to receive the prestigious Senator Daniel K. Inouye NAPABA Trailblazer Award presented by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

On February 3 of this year, the Honourable Madam Justice Maryka Omatsu was appointed to the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest official honour, conferred on her by the Lieutenant Governor, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

Now semi-retired, Judge Omatsu divides her time between Toronto and Vancouver, where she spoke to The Bulletin.

Front, L-R: Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Art Miki, President of the National Association of Japanese Canadians signing the Redress Agreement on September 22, 1988. Back, L-R: Don Rosenbloom, Roger Obata, Lucien Bouchard, Audrey Kobayashi, Gerry Weiner, Maryka Omatsu, Roy Miki, Cassandra Kobayashi.

I was reading your book, Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience, the other day and I was struck by the ambivalence you have towards the 1988 Redress settlement. On the one hand you talk about healing that has come about because of the Redress movement, you called it “our sweetest moment,” yet on the other hand, you describe the settlement as a failure. Those words were written four years after the signing of the agreement. It’s now been over 25 years. Have your feelings changed over that time? And if so, how?

When I wrote Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience 23 years ago, I believed then, and continue to believe today, that our Redress settlement in 1988 was a victory. It was our community’s “sweetest moment”…a vindication against those who called us traitors, for our national shaming and exile during the war years, a reclaiming of sorts for our decades of discrimination, and the theft of our property and community. Certainly the $400 million settlement, won by the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) was the largest human rights award in our country’s history and a seismic shift that has been precedent-setting for other communities seeking justice. Together with the Charter of Rights and the repeal of the War Measures Act, the Japanese Canadian Redress settlement protects others from our history.

By failure, I meant then, and even more so today, the disappointing failure of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) to live up to our dreams. As part of the NAJC negotiated settlement, our community contributed $8 million, which was matched by the Government. I saw the CRRF as the jewel in our crown. It would be our legacy, our gift to Canadians. It would assist other racialized groups seeking justice. We clearly had in mind First Nations people. However, we trustingly left the drafting of the legislation to the Federal Government, which omitted our community’s partnership and turned the CRRF into a research agency not a funder for equality seeking groups. Several years ago, the Federal Government announced quietly that they were considering closing down the CRRF. The NAJC said, if you do so, please return our $8 million, and we will set up our own NAJC RRF. We have not heard back from them since.

You lent your expertise as a lawyer to the Redress movement. From the book it is clear that your motivations were rooted in a very personal and deeply-felt sense of outrage at the injustices visited upon our community. What were the legal challenges you faced?

Unlike in the US, Canada did not have a Constitution (until 1982). This difference meant that in their redress struggle, Japanese Americans had a legal arsenal and we had none. Certainly for a young human rights lawyer this was very frustrating. I viewed with envy the National Council for Japanese American Redress that launched a $24 billion law suit for the loss of civil rights of 120,000 Japanese Americans, and my legal colleagues in the Bay area who successfully appealed the criminal records of Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi for curfew violations. We had no legal bows in our quiver. In Canada, ours was a political struggle that required community solidarity and coalition building to make our issue a broadly-supported Canadian campaign.

Your law practice was very much aligned with your work on the Redress movement.

I was very fortunate that I was able to work in areas of law that I saw as worthy causes. I was a product of the 1960s civil rights movements, a childhood in the union town of Hamilton, and a Japanese Canadian family scarred by the Government’s racism. This made me a civil rights activist, feminist, and community organizer. I started out by working for Charles Roach, a black civil rights lawyer. Our clients were black immigrants, and we brought an appeal against the Government practice of treating nannies as contract workers without a right to become Canadians. This eventually resulted in the live-in caregivers program. My work thereafter included chairing the Ontario Human Rights Appeals Tribunal and acting as counsel for First Nations, first in their effort to prevent the building of nuclear reactors in James Bay Ontario, then in a campaign to preserve forests in the North of the Province from clear cutting by the pulp and paper industry. All these activities shared with Redress a concern for human rights and justice.

In your book you talk about your father being a virtual stranger to you. I found that really sad, yet at the same time you were able to delve into his life after his death and come to a different sense of knowing. Can you talk a bit about your father and how he has impacted your sense of who you are?

I loved my father and I regret that he died (1980) before our redress settlement, before my appointment to the bench, before I moved back to the west coast. In Vancouver, he had a popular restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Granville. After the war, my family resettled to Hamilton, because it was said that racism was less virulent out east and my mother, who had been born in Port Essington (across the river from Prince Rupert) had heard that there was a mountain there. My father’s various business ventures failed. He was a proud man and his life disappointed him. He held the views of a Meiji man and he was out of step with the times. In some ways, we were aliens to one another. He believed that girls lived at home until they married. That is why I went to university in Toronto and was allowed to leave home. Yet when my roommate and I moved into our first apartment, he made a book case-chest of drawers for me. My father was mystified at my decision to become a lawyer. He asked, “who would go to a woman lawyer?” But I believe he was pleased when I was called to the bar. He was a Buddhist and proud of his Japanese ancestry. Although, I am not a church member, some of his religious values and pride in our heritage were passed on to me.

Book launch for Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience. L-R: Satsuko Omatsu, Maryka Omatsu, Ed Broadbent.

In 1993 you became Canada’s first Asian female judge—which is rather hard to believe. Was there a sense on your part of being a pioneer—did you feel you had something to prove?

There was a huge celebration on the announcement of my becoming a judge. Over 30 organizations and hundreds of folks attended a large banquet to commemorate the breaking of a racial and sexual barrier that my appointment signaled. I felt an obligation to be exemplary as it would reflect badly if I performed poorly. Fortunately for me, racialized Canadian judges in Ontario are under less scrutiny than in other parts of Canada. My racialized colleagues in Halifax, Montreal, and Vancouver have been pilloried in the press for actions that go unnoticed in Toronto.

Did your experience with the Redress movement impact how you approach being a judge?

On the bench I have encountered many people who have been subject to abuse and mistreatment. My ability to understand their experiences in part stems from our community’s history of discrimination.

What has brought you the most satisfaction as a judge?

I was appointed to the criminal court and have sat in provincial appeals (civil) and criminal matters my entire career (thus far 22 years). Before that, as a student and a lawyer, I have been a member of the Law Union, a group of lawyers dedicated to using their legal skills to better Canadian society. Fortunately a group of Law Union lawyers or those sharing our values have been appointed to the bench. These have been my closest colleagues in the past decades. In my view these women and men have been the most creative in thinking outside of the box, and the judicial box is extremely small and narrow minded. I have been involved with them in bringing theories of therapeutic justice to the justice system. This involves asking what are the causes of crime and how can we best address these so that the offender does not re-offend. That thinking has led to the creation of drug treatment, mental health, domestic abuse, and First Nations courts across the country.

I keep coming back to your book—it brings up so many issues and questions. You talk about feeling almost “white” for much of your life, despite your physical appearance. From my own experience, self-identity is an ever-shifting concept. How do you see yourself today? Are you comfortable in your own skin?

I agree with your experience that it is “an ever-changing concept.” I grew up a racialized woman in a white world. Canada had a whites only immigration policy until the late 1960s. Thus it was no wonder that pre-1967, apart from our families, it wasn’t unusual to go for days without seeing another non-white face. Needless to say, Hamilton did not have a Chinatown, let alone a Japantown. We had to go to Toronto to buy our shoyu, miso, tofu, etc.

Fast forward to the Toronto or Vancouver of today. 51% of Torontonians describe themselves as Racialized, and 42% of Vancouverites. The University of Toronto is majority non-white and it is a rare downtown street in either city without a Japanese restaurant. After growing up like ET, feeling lost and lonely, today I am comfortable, as though immersed in a warm bath especially in Vancouver, where the Asian presence is keenly felt.

You split your year between Vancouver and Toronto—I am always curious about people’s perceptions of the two Japanese Canadian communities…

To answer this question, I spoke with Joy Kogawa, over a ramen lunch the other day, because like me, Joy has the good fortune to live in both cities. Whether because of the one-time existence of a Japantown in Vancouver or because Japanese Canadian immigrants first settled on BC’s coast, I find Vancouver’s community more vibrant and healthy than Toronto’s. One of the things I enjoy about living in Vancouver is the Powell Street festival and the many activities that are going on at Tonari Gumi, Nikkei Place, and the churches. And of course there’s The Bulletin. Without your magazine the communications link that binds the community wouldn’t exist. In Toronto, I rely on the Japan Foundation for things Japanese and am involved in pan-Asian events, such as the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL) of which I am a founder. FACL has over 1,000 members and chapters in BC, Alberta, Ontario, and the Maritimes. FACL’s goals are professional advancement of our members and equality and justice for our various communities.

Congratulations on your Order of Ontario. Your husband Frank was excited that Paul Henderson of “The Goal” fame and Rick Green of the Red Green show were also inductees. I guess you were in lofty company in his eyes!

This is Ontario’s highest honour. I was completely surprised to get the acknowledgement. I was told that this year there were 425 nominees and that I was accepted by the Committee without debate on the first round. I was pleased that my former next door neighbor, John Ralston Saul and two of my colleagues (although they are more senior than I) Judges Sid Linden (Chief) and Warren Winkler (Chief Judge of Ontario) were among the inductees.

I should say that my husband was impressed by the award and proud of me for receiving it. The prospect of meeting Paul Henderson and Rick Green however, was the main attraction for him in attending the banquet that followed the awards ceremony.

Lately I have been the recipient of various awards. I guess it is a sign of my advancing years. Receiving the National Association of Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), Senator Inouye Trailblazer award in 2013, was a particularly moving experience because of my respect for Senator Inouye, who was instrumental in Japanese American redress and for NAPABA, which represents 40,000 Asian American lawyers and judges.

In your reflections on the Redress agreement, you express disappointment that it didn’t include greater strengthening of civil liberties and equality for minorities. Given the global issues and stresses we’re faced with today, do you sense that they are in for a rough ride once again? And are there any lessons we have learned as a country, do you think?

Yes, we are living in a period of fear and paranoia. The Japanese Canadian Redress story shifted our nation’s consciousness. However, 911 has been called this century’s Pearl Harbor and with the bombings, racism and chauvinism are alas on the rise.

In that regard, let me tell you about Norm Mineta. Norm told this story at a NAPABA conference in Washington that I attended in November 2012. During 911, he was Secretary of Transportation under President Bush. He was holding a breakfast meeting in Washington, when an aide interrupted and asked the Secretary to step outside and view what was happening in NYC. Norm watched the television screen as one of the twin towers went up in smoke. Perhaps it was an accident? Pilot error? Plane malfunction? He returned to his meeting. A minute later, the aide, returned. Horrified Norm saw a second tower demolished. He knew then that the World Trade Center had been attacked. Immediately, Norm cancelled all airplane traffic in the US. The next day, when President Bush returned to the White House, the Cabinet met to discuss options. Some around the table proposed internment of Muslims. President Bush, who knew Norm’s family history looked at him. Norm spoke of his experience at age 10, interned at Heart Mountain, near Cody, Wyoming. He successfully argued against the internment of a community and for political and not racial profiling.

Because of our experience, like Norm Mineta, our community stands for the principles of equality, justice, and fairness. We are being told that we cannot afford those ideals in today’s world. However, these are not just fair weather values.


*This article was originally published on The Bulletin, on February 25, 2015.


© 2015 John Endo Greenaway

activism Bittersweet Passage Canada Canadian Race Relations Foundation civil rights feminist identity Japanese Canadian judge law lawyer Maryka Omatsu National Association of Japanese Canadians norman mineta redress Sodan-kai