Given what had happened to Ted Itani’s family during the Second World War, he found an unusual way to fit into Kelowna during the late 1940s and ’50s.
Like thousands of other people of Japanese descent, the Itanis had been forcibly relocated from the B.C. Coast to the Interior as suspected security threats. They lost their homes and many of their possessions.
Even after the war ended, suspicions lingered. It wasn’t until 1949, four years after the war ended, that travel restrictions on people of Japanese descent were lifted.
The Itanis moved to Westbank, but Ted discovered it wasn’t easy for teens like him to join groups like the Boy Scouts. So he joined one of the few groups that would have him — the military.
More precisely, the cadets. And despite the recent history of war between Canada and Japan, Itani says there was no particular animosity toward him among the veterans who supervised the B.C. Dragoons cadet program.
“Everyone has to have a sense of belonging, and the cadet program gave me that sense of belonging in Kelowna,” Itani, 77, recalled Thursday.
One of the instructors, Thomas Marsh, had been captured by the Japanese during the war and spent several years in a PoW camp, living under brutal conditions.
“He had been horribly treated by the Japanese while he was in captivity,” Itani said.
“And yet, he made the distinction between the Japanese people and myself as a Japanese-Canadian,” Itani said. “He was a great man, very smart and kind, and I would say he was one of the most important mentors I had in my life.”
Itani would go on to a 37-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces, involved in many peacekeeping, humanitarian and refugee-assistance missions. Since he retired from the military in 1991, Itani has been involved with the Canadian Red Cross, helping oversee disaster response programs in countries hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes.
He’s also been a contractor to the U.S. State Department, and has addressed global conferences in London and Geneva. As recently as 2010, when he was 71, he was in Pakistan directing relief operations after a major flood.
Last month, Itani, who now lives in Ottawa, was inducted into the Order of Canada. “Ted Itani is a role model of service to people in crisis around the world,” part of the citation reads.
Itani still has relatives in Kelowna, including sister-in-law Beryl Itani, who for a long time headed up the Central Okanagan Emergency Social Services organization.
During his military career, Itani says he did encounter some racism from fellow soldiers.
“It’s not like, just because you put on a uniform, you’re suddenly endowed with all these noble attributes,” he said.
But the overwhelming majority of his comrades weren’t at all discriminatory, Itani says, and he sees a well-run military as a powerful force for good.
“Human ingenuity can create terrible weapons of war,” he acknowledges. “But it’s also human ingenuity that strives to understand the sources of conflict, and to create a better world, one life at a time.”