10 Incredible Asian-Canadians You Didn’t Learn About in History Class
Asian rights are front and centre as Asians in Canada face an uptick in racist attacks and harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fight for Asian-Canadian visibility and equality is longstanding. To celebrate Asian Heritage Month this May, here are 10 Asian-Canadians who made strides in their community and showcased excellence to the rest of Canada who might not have been in your history textbooks.
Kew Dock Yip (1906 – 2001)
Kew Dock Yip was the first Chinese-Canadian lawyer. Yip, along with Jewish civil rights lawyer Irving Himel and activists from across the country, worked to repeal the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act—a law that barred almost all Chinese immigrants from entering Canada for 24 years and was repealed in 1947. Born in Vancouver, B.C. as the 17th of 23 children, Yip originally got a degree in pharmacology from the University of Michigan in 1931. Shortly after graduating, he was a secretary for the Chinese consulate in Vancouver before moving to Toronto to join the Queen’s Own Rifles reserve in 1940. Two years later, he entered Osgoode Hall Law School and became a lawyer. Yip was active in Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian community, working out of his Chinatown office for almost 50 years before retiring in 1992. For years, he was the only Chinese-speaking lawyer in the area and made legal aid more accessible to Chinese residents. He received the Law Society Medal from the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1998, a prestigious award given annually to lawyers who make noteworthy contributions in their field.
Irene Uchida (1917-2013)
Geneticist Irene Ayako Uchida didn’t initially pursue science as her career. Growing up, she was an avid musician and took piano, organ and violin lessons. Uchida went on to study English at the University of British Columbia. She then took a two-year break from her studies in Japan, but in 1941, instead of returning back to campus, Uchida and her family were forced by the Canadian government to move to an internment camp. There, she opened a school for interned children and acted as a principal and teacher until 1944. Uchida was finally able to complete her English degree at the University of Toronto in 1946 and, after finding inspiration from an introductory genetics course, eventually got a PhD in zoology five years later. Uchida was a pioneer in cytogenetics and eventually founded a laboratory at McMaster University. Her work helped develop a method to detect chromosomal abnormalities in fetuses and revealed that Down syndrome can come from either parent, not just the mother.
Senator Vivienne Poy (1941 – Present)
Before becoming the first Canadian of Asian origin appointed to the Senate of Canada, Senator Vivienne Poy was a fashion designer and entrepreneur. She founded her label, Vivienne Poy Mode, in 1981. In her early years, Poy studied in Hong Kong and England. She moved to Canada in 1959 and eventually earned a PhD in history from the University of Toronto. In 1998, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed Poy to the Senate, where she sat with the Liberal caucus and represented Toronto. In the Senate, Poy was outspoken about Asian-Canadian rights and created a successful motion to designate May as Asian Heritage Month, which the government formally declared in 2002. She was the chancellor of the University of Toronto from 2003 to 2006 and is the author of five books, including a biography of her father, who was a businessman in Hong Kong.
Raymond Moriyama (1929-Present)
Raymond Moriyama is one of the most respected architects in Canada—the same country where, during World War II, he was placed in an internment camp along with his family simply because of his Japanese heritage. In 1958, Moriyama founded his own design firm and later joined architect Ted Teshima and formed Moriyama & Teshima Architects in 1970. Today, Moriyama’s work is internationally acclaimed and includes some of Canada’s most iconic structures, including the Toronto Reference Library, the Ontario Science Centre, Canadian War Museum and the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, Japan. Moriyama has honourary degrees from ten universities and is a Gold Medal recipient from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, the institute’s highest honour for people who make lasting contributions to Canadian architecture. He is also a member of the Order of Ontario, the Order of Canada and Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, which recognizes how Moriyama’s works have promoted relations between Canada and Japan.
Baljit Sethi (1943-Present)
Baljit Sethi dedicates her work to advocating for immigrants and ensuring that they’re able to thrive within Canadian society. An immigrant herself, Sethi moved to Canada from India in 1972. Shortly after, Sethi worked at the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia, first as a family counsellor and then as a settlement counsellor. In 1976 she founded what’s now known as the Immigrant & Multicultural Services Society in Prince George, B.C. There, she provided newcomers with multicultural and anti-racism programs that helped them feel more at home. Several of these programs are still running to this day. Sethi is a recipient of the Order of British Columbia and the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism in the lifetime achievement category.
William Lore (1909-2012)
William K. L. Lore, born in Victoria, B.C., became the first Chinese-Canadian civil servant in the country, starting out as a wireless operator in the Department of Transport. After being denied three times because of his race, Lore finally joined the Royal Canadian Navy and became an officer, making him not only the first Chinese-Canadian in the Royal Canadian Navy but also the first person of Chinese heritage to serve in any British Commonwealth navy. At the end of World War II, Lore helped free Canadian, British and Hong Konger prisoners of war in Hong Kong. In 1948, Lore retired from the navy and got a law degree, moving to Hong Kong to set up his legal practice.
Gilmore Junio (1990-Present)
Long-track speed skater Gilmore Junio is a two-time World Cup gold medalist, but he’s best known for someone else’s win. In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Junio decided to give up his spot in the 1,000-metre race to teammate Denny Morrison, who didn’t qualify for that event after falling during the Canadian trials. When the team realized they weren’t getting the results they wanted at Sochi, Junio’s coach turned to him and asked if he would consider giving his spot to Morrison. “At first my dad was a little upset they asked me and not someone else. But he understands that I see myself as a leader on this team and that I want to lead by example,” Junio told The Globe and Mail in 2014. “After I told him why I did it he was more proud.” Morrison won a silver medal and celebrated it with Junio. For his generosity and display of sportsmanship, Junio received a commemorative crowd-funded award started by a Toronto design firm that raised over $7,500 from Canadians across the country to cover the costs of the medal and charity donations. Earlier in the Olympics, Junio was the top Canadian in the 500-metre speed skating race.
Deepa Mehta (1950-Present)
Director, producer and screenwriter Deepa Mehta’s work is revered for exploring social justice and human rights issues with gripping honesty. This includes her well-known Elements trilogy, which was released throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s and sparked controversy in India, where Mehta was born and raised and where the films were set. Fire questions the power imbalances found within marriages, Earth depicts the forced migration spawned from the creation of Pakistan and Oscar-nominated Water follows a child bride and the ostracization she faces after the death of her husband. In 2012, Mehta received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement and the Order of Canada and Order of Ontario in 2013. She’s currently working on her next film, a supernatural thriller centred on women, as well as an adaptation of Madhuri Vijay’s 2019 novel, The Far Field.
Kim Thúy (1968-Present)
Award-winning author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru, published in 2009, is heavily inspired by her own journey from fleeing Vietnam in 1978 with her family to a Malaysian refugee camp and finally arriving in Quebec on a boat. Before starting her writing career with a novel that would win the Governor General’s Literary Award for French fiction and the Grand Prix littéraire Archambault in 2011, Thúy worked as a lawyer, a seamstress and an interpreter. For five years, she was also the owner of a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. After closing her restaurant, one of her former patrons reached out and asked if he could submit her unfinished manuscript to his friend, who, unbeknownst at the time to Thúy, would become her publisher. Ru became a bestseller and was translated in 15 languages. Thúy’s sixth novel, Em, is set to be released late September 2021.
Shyam Selvadurai (1965-Present)
For novelist Shyam Selvadurai, politics always found a way to intersect with his personal life. When he was 19, he and his family immigrated to Canada after the 1983 riots in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is also of mixed Tamil and Sinhala heritage, two ethnic groups that did not live harmoniously back in his home nation. Selvadurai’s first novel, Funny Boy, published in 1994, follows the coming-of-age story of a young boy navigating being both queer and Tamil—identities that were discriminated against in Sri Lanka at the time. Funny Boy would later be adapted by Deepa Mehta in the 2020 film of the same name. In 1998, Selvadurai published Cinnamon Gardens, another work of fiction that touches on being marginalized, before writing about his personal experience as a queer Sri Lankan man in a 2003 essay titled “Coming Out.” On top of numerous awards for his literary work, Selvadurai also has a spider named after him: the Brignolia shyami, which was discovered in Sri Lanka and named by a Sri Lankan research institute in 2016.
Next, learn about the incredible stories of 10 Canadian women in history.