Celebrating Asian Heritage Month: Looking back at the legacy of Phyllis Yagi

April 27, 2023

By Heather Gardiner

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and in recognition of this awareness month, the Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital (WCH) is sharing the inspiring story of Phyllis Yagi. As a young Japanese Canadian girl growing up in British Columbia during World War II, Yagi overcame great challenges during her early life to achieve her professional ambition of becoming a hospital pharmacist. For almost four decades she served as WCH’s head pharmacist and is credited with developing its Department of Pharmacy into a strong teaching unit.

Yagi was born in Vancouver, B.C., to Tokujiro and Umeko Takenaka. Her father supported his family as a bookkeeper while her mother looked after Yagi and her younger brother in the family’s large three-storey house in the city.

However, Yagi’s life dramatically changed when she was just twelve years old. On December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Canada declared war on Japan. For Japanese Canadians, this declaration of war sadly meant increased suspicion, harassment and anti-Asian discrimination.

In February 1942, the federal government announced all people of Japanese ancestry, even those who were born in Canada or were naturalized citizens, were to be removed from the west coast of B.C. The following month, Yagi and her family were forcibly removed from their home and relocated to the Bay Farm internment camp in Slocan, B.C. It is estimated that approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians were forced into internment camps during this time. Only one year later, the federally funded Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property notified Yagi’s family that their home and all their possessions that had been confiscated had now been sold.

Her family remained at the internment camp until after the war. Like all Japanese Canadian internees, they were given the option of being deported to Japan or relocated to communities east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1946, Yagi and her family made the difficult choice to leave B.C. and start a new life in Guelph, Ontario.  

There, Yagi attended Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute before she was accepted to the Ontario College of Pharmacy (now part of UofT). In 1952, she was one of only two women to graduate in her class with a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy (B.Sc.Phm). After graduating, she was offered the job of head pharmacist at WCH.

Shortly after joining Women’s College, Yagi became aware that the hospital was beginning negotiations with UofT to become a teaching hospital. As a recent graduate, Yagi believed that practical experience in a hospital would greatly benefit those who wanted to pursue careers in the specialized field of hospital pharmacy.

In 1958, Yagi helped to establish Ontario’s first post-graduate program in hospital pharmacy at WCH in partnership with UofT. She then continued to expand WCH’s hospital pharmacy teaching program by offering learning opportunities to undergraduate students at UofT’s Faculty of Pharmacy.  

In 1962, she became a founding member of the Canadian Hospital Pharmacy Residency Board. This board would eventually become the national body in charge of the accreditation of hospital pharmacy residency programs throughout Canada. Her dedication to the promotion of teaching and mentorship in the field of hospital pharmacy earned her the Ortho Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Achievement and recognition as a Fellow of the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists.

In 1989, Yagi retired from WCH’s Department of Pharmacy.  “Under [Yagi’s] direction and leadership, the Pharmacy Department has developed into a high standard of proficiency,” shared friend and colleague Margaret Robins at her retirement party. “Throughout her years of service, she has participated and contributed fully to all aspects of hospital programs. Her many friends and colleagues will always remember her as a friendly and caring person. Both personally and professionally, she has contributed much to Women’s College Hospital.”

After enduring what the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia “now acknowledge[s] as one of the worst human rights violations in B.C.’s history,” Phyllis Yagi fulfilled her professional ambition of becoming a hospital pharmacist. Yagi dedicated almost four decades of her career as WCH’s head pharmacist to teaching and mentoring the next generation of hospital pharmacists. This Asian Heritage Month we recognize and celebrate the achievements of Phyllis Yagi and the contributions of the entire Asian community to Canada’s cultural fabric.