This month is Canada’s 20th annual Asian Heritage Month—an occasion to celebrate the culture and contributions of the Asian-Canadian community, and also to reflect. As Judge Maryka Omatsu reminds us, this year there is a special need to “think beyond the superficial” and address the racism the community faces due to false narratives about COVID-19.
Omatsu is a recipient of the Order of Ontario who has broken barriers throughout her life. In 1993, at the Ontario Court of Justice, she became the first woman with East Asian heritage to be appointed as a judge in Canada. Prior to this, she was an integral part of the team that negotiated a redress settlement for Japanese Canadians from the federal government.
Omatsu was born in 1948 in Hamilton to parents who had been expelled earlier that year from British Columbia. In 1942, along with all Japanese Canadians in B.C., the family had been declared “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act. Their home and her father’s restaurant in Vancouver were confiscated, and the Omatsus were incarcerated in a camp with other Japanese Canadians in the British Columbia interior.
Although the family had heard there would be “less racism” in Ontario, Omatsu was subject to patronizing comments and racial slurs, and she was often chased home from school by a boy throwing rocks. “I was raised to support the underdog,” she says. After graduating from Osgoode law school in 1975, she worked for her mentor, Black anti-racism advocate Charles Roach, and also on behalf of Indigenous peoples.
In 1980, the Japanese-Canadian community began its eight-year campaign for redress, which culminated in Canada’s finally repealing the War Measures Act and financially compensating survivors. The 1988 settlement “opened the door,” Omatsu says, for future redress settlements for survivors of the Chinese Head Tax, thalidomide, and residential schools. Omatsu’s colourful and poignant book Bittersweet Passage, about the negotiations and the history leading up to them, and her family’s story, won a Prime Minister’s Award for Publishing in 1993.
In 2018, Omatsu wrote and directed the short film Swimming Upstream, which chronicles the historic injustice Japanese Canadians suffered in British Columbia; she is currently an advisor to the team negotiating a separate redress settlement with the province.
Omatsu’s work includes helping to guide those who experience or witness acts of hatred or bias through the Responding to Hate toolkit—hosted online by Ryerson University at www.ryerson.ca/responding-to-hate. While she does find there has been positive change in her lifetime regarding race relations, she points to the systemic institutional racism that remains, and to the “unfortunate bubble” of pandemic-era anti-Asian racism in Canada, particularly directed at those of East Asian heritage.
“I think basically Canadians are fair,” she says. “I do always remain optimistic.”
May all Ontarians be inspired by Omatsu’s striking example of speaking truth to power, fighting for inclusion, and building solidarity. This Asian Heritage Month, let us recommit ourselves to rooting out racism and working towards a more just, equal, and sustainable society.
— The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario
One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. Ontario’s honours and awards formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of role models from all walks of life. In doing so, they strengthen the fabric of communities and shape the aspirations of Ontarians.
Learn more: https://www.ontario.ca/page/honours-and-awards