BY LORNE ECKERSLEY
I have written on the subject of grace before, most notably in the aftermath of the death of my niece and her boyfriend in a hiking accident. The Merriam-Webster definition, “the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful”, suited that occasion, if only barely.
At that time, 12 years ago this week, I had been staying at my sister’s place, awaiting cataract surgery. I was there when the bad news came, and grabbed both parents into a close hug while they wailed in grief. In the ensuing days I watched in awe as these two people—who would have much preferred to close the drapes, lock the doors and unplug the telephone—welcomed friends and family into their home, with a deep understanding of their need to share the burden of a loss that changed us all.
I wrote about these models of grace in part because I never wanted to forget what I had seen in my sister and brother-in-law on those awful days.
My concept of grace—and let’s add “under duress” to the definition—got some confirmation when Ron Toyota dropped off a photocopy of a Vancouver Sun column written by the inimitable Jack Wasserman. For many years Wasserman was the Man About Town in Vancouver, chronicling the happenings around the city in what for many readers was the first column they turned to when they opened their daily newspaper.
I assume the column in question was written in the 1960s. COLOR THEM MAD was the lead tag of the column. ”B.C. government officials are still getting the kickback on the goodwill bus tour in California,” Wasserman started out.
The bus tour in question comprised of 35 British Columbians who were visiting California to promote our province to Californians, and Toyota’s father, Tak, was among the dignitaries. The tour caught Wasserman’s attention because some of the citizen ambassadors returned home to report that they had been heartily offended by their time with BC Commissioner Newton Steacy, a former MLA.
“Our ambassadors were plenty miffed,” Wasserman wrote.
Following a ceremonial tree planting in Golden Gate Park, the delegation was treated to a commentary on their bus by Steacy, who apparently turned the drive into an impromptu tour. He took control of the PA system and pointed highlights of San Francisco as they drove, including “Japtown”. “Now there’s something we have down here that you won’t see at home,” he said. Upon passing a beach, he continued. “On a Sunday on that beach there’s every shape, shade, size and color, except whites, of course.”
Upon disembarking from the bus at their hotel, apparently, a number of the delegation expressed their concern about the tenor his remarks, and Steacy quickly apologized. He then turned to Toyota and said, “I hope you realize I wasn’t talking about you people—I meant the Nigras.”
“At which point Tak put his arm around Commissioner Steacy’s shoulder and said, softly, ‘I never suffer from racial intolerance in British Columbia. Now, I like to think you are my representative here. So, Mr. Commissioner, I would suggest that when you are down in San Francisco that you assume the B.C. attitude rather than the local attitude because you do represent me.’”
Now, if that response by the man Wasserman described as “Creston hardware merchant and community benefactor” wasn’t the very epitome of grace, I don’t know how else it could be described.
Keep in mind that Tak Toyota’s family had been uprooted from their Vancouver Island home during World War II for no other reason than their Japanese heritage. They were transported to the West Kootenay, held in a detention camp and all of their property and the possessions they left behind were sold off. After the war ended and internees were free to leave, Tak married Betty, whose family had suffered the same fate, and they took up residence in Creston. Both were determined to look ahead to the future instead of dwelling on the past, and they quickly became respected business operators and community leaders.
So there was Tak Toyota, despite the experience of bad treatment by a fear-driven government in his youth, standing face-to-face with a government official, and confronting him in the most gentle way imaginable, after witnessing what he saw as bad behavior. And imagine, this man whose family had lost virtually everything because they were Japanese, him being able to say “I never suffer from racial intolerance in British Columbia.”
Like my sister and brother-in-law—Rae Ann and John—did some four decades later, Tak Toyota drew on inner strength and a determination not to make a bad situation worse in the way he responded. Instead of lashing out in anger and reacting in a way that would have tempted even the best of us, he pointed out his dissatisfaction in a way that surely he would have wanted others to take with himself and his own family. It is a lesson I hope to learn from.