At the close of a Remembrance Day service marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Holland, people came to thank the group of elderly gentlemen and shake their hands. Each man was proudly wearing a smart blue blazer, crisp white shirt and Royal Canadian Legion-issue beret and tie. Each looked the epitome of the venerable veteran.
Just a year earlier, it had been a different story. When two volunteers arrived at Calgary’s Colonel Belcher Veterans Care facility to take those same veterans to Remembrance Day ceremonies, the men were wearing sweatpants and t-shirts. “Aren’t they getting dressed?” the volunteers asked staff, who explained casual clothes were all the veterans had. At the ceremony, the men arrived and left completely unnoticed.
“That’s not right,” the volunteers said to each other. They made a plan to change it. Over the next year, they raised money and sourced enough blazers, shirts, slacks, and Legion ties and berets to fill a closet — enough so no veteran from the Colonel Belcher would go unrecognized at future ceremonies.
It was an act of respect and kindness carried out by two kindred spirits whose generous and giant impact on their world belies their history and their tiny stature.
“Yukio and I both got toughened early in life. Maybe that left us more open to being kind to others.” Barbara Kitagawa
On Jan. 14, 1942, a month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Canadian government passed an order calling for the removal of Japanese-Canadians from a designated “protected area” stretching 160 miles inland along the coast of British Columbia.
Yukio Kitagawa (Carpentry ’59) was just six years old when his family received the government order to evacuate their small farm at Mission, B.C. and enter an internment camp. They could keep only the possessions they could carry; everything else was seized and eventually sold to pay the cost of their detainment.
Yukio, his father and his five older siblings were among more than 21,000 Japanese-Canadians interned. Because they were farmers, the Kitagawas were given the option to stay together by working on a sugar beet farm in Diamond City, Alta. Here, they would endure squalid conditions, poverty, hunger and backbreaking labour for the next six years.
At the time, Yukio was the youngest in his family, but he worked long days beside his siblings and the adults in the fields, thinning, weeding and harvesting. Yukio says the strength he has drawn on throughout his life was forged by this early hardship.
“I think we developed a certain discipline from the work … We developed that discipline because that was our life.”
In 1948 — three years after the Second World War ended — the Kitagawa family was finally released from the farm. They moved to Lethbridge to start a new life, eventually settling in a little house on the north end of town.
It was there Yukio first saw Barbara standing by her front gate across the street. She was 10 and he was 12. “I was kind of keen on her because, by golly, she was small, like me,” says Yukio.
Both Yukio and Barbara were the sixth born to big families. Barbara’s family had eight kids; Yukio’s had nine. The two became fast friends. “We used to sit on the curb and talk for hours,” Yukio says. They bonded over conversation and common ground, which included a pervasive sense of “otherness” that each understood, deeply.
“Barbara was bullied incredibly because of her small size,” says Yukio. “I was amazed by how she seemed to be always friendly and happy. So somehow her character developed positively from a negative situation.”
That strength was an inspiration to Yukio who, like other Japanese-Canadians, continued to face racism long after his internment — everything from anti-Japanese comic book stories to cruel comments from other children. “I can remember the bus driver’s son pointing out my pants because they had patches on them,” he recalls. “It just hurt so much and yet, you know, what do you do? I guess that’s how you build character.”
At 15, he tried looking for a job. “I just could not get one. Barbara kept getting jobs, which was great,” he recalls. “When I’d apply … they’d look at me as if to say, ‘Get out of here.’”
Undeterred, Yukio began selling newspapers on the street, buying 10 copies off the press for 25 cents. On a good day, he’d make 75 cents. “Because we didn’t have much money, I’d take a risk and buy more papers as it got darker so I could sell more. I used to brag to Barbara that I never came home with a paper,” he says, laughing.
Yukio also worked in the family woodworking shop, developing skills that earned him a place in the Carpentry Apprenticeship program at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (PITA), as SAIT was known before 1960. In 1959, he graduated from PITA with a Journeyman Carpentry certificate as well as new-found skills and confidence, which he leveraged to complete his senior matriculation. After receiving a bursary, Yukio graduated with a Bachelor of Vocational Education from the University of Alberta. By 1969, he was teaching carpentry and other courses at Bishop Grandin High School in Calgary, where he taught until retiring in 1989.
Throughout it all, there was Barbara. “Barbara was my hero and my best friend,” he wrote in a speech for their 50th wedding anniversary.
In their late teens, Yukio and Barbara’s friendship turned to romance. That’s when Barbara’s family began to take notice. Interracial relationships were uncommon in those days.
“As soon as Yukio came to pick me up for a date, that’s when my dad stepped in.” Barbara was given an ultimatum: stop seeing Yukio or leave home. So she left and lived with her sister until 1960, when Barbara and Yukio married. Today the Kitagawas have three sons, none of whom met their maternal grandfather. “The experience with my father made me stronger,” Barbara says philosophically.
“Yukio and I both got toughened early in life. Maybe that left us more open to being kind to others.”
For Yukio and Barbara, being kind and living a purposeful life are part of repaying kindnesses they say they have received along the way. The couple contributes tirelessly to their community – literally, tirelessly.
In 2005, when Barbara and Yukio read in the newspaper that the baseball academy in Vauxhall, Alberta was in jeopardy because of dwindling enrolment, they established a scholarship at the academy in honour of Reno Lizzi, who had passed away earlier that year. A local businessman, Lizzi had helped bring a Pioneer League baseball team to Lethbridge, and he was a friend and mentor to Yukio.
They pitched in again almost a decade later, when they started the Pennies for K’s campaign to raise money in support of the academy. Barbara managed the campaign and solicited pledges; Yukio got on his bike and began cycling four or five hours each day. On Oct. 12, 2018, at age 82, Yukio completed his goal. After four years and 42 days, the odometer on Yukio’s bike hit 100,000 km and the couple’s fundraising coffers hit $100,000.
The Kitagawas hope their efforts might inspire academy students. “I was thinking, you know, wouldn’t it be neat someday that one of those kids would say, ‘I remember that little guy and I’d like to do something like that,’” says Yukio.
This wasn’t the first time they had stepped up for an organization in need. In 1996, when Theatre Calgary was $1.2 million in debt and facing possible closure, the Kitagawas — long-time volunteers with the company — joined with local business people to initiate a fundraising program that helped get the theatre back on its feet.
Yukio and Barbara have also volunteered at Heritage Park and the Father Lacombe Care Centre, as well as giving their time to programs for seniors including festivals, resource fairs — and that Blue Blazer Program at the Colonel Belcher. “We feel it was one of our better programs,” says Barbara.
When the couple was first sourcing clothes for the veterans, Yukio called the Royal Canadian Legion to ask if they might donate ties and berets.
“Who is this? What’s your name again?” asked the man on the phone.
“Yukio Kitagawa,” was the reply. The man bristled. “We take care of our own people,” he said.
There it was. Fifty years after the end of the internment program, and despite a lifetime of working and contributing to this country — still there were people who wanted to see Yukio as an outsider, a threat.
So Yukio did what he has always done. He drew on his extraordinary strength of character, and he and Barbara got back to work.
“Blue Blazer really was a good program,” says Yukio, smiling. “It was just astonishing to see the attention people gave those men because they recognized them as veterans.”