Asian Heritage Month 2021: Historic Asian Canadians
In 2001, a motion was proposed by former Canadian Senator Vivienne Poy to designate May as Asian Heritage Month. In 2002, May was officially designated as the month to recognize, celebrate and honour the countless contributions by Canadians with Asian heritage from over 30 countries. Through perseverance and hope, these Canadians endured sacrifice, hardship and discrimination to leave an unforgettable mark here in Canada. Let us all celebrate these historic Canadians and continue to learn about the countless others who have shaped this country.
This is not a complete list of all notable Asian-Canadians. Please share other individuals you would like to celebrate in the comments section below!
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson (The 26th Governor-General)
Adrienne Clarkson was born on February 10, 1939, in Hong Kong. Her family came to Canada as refugees when she was young. Though the Chinese Immigration Act was already established in Canada, her father’s work at the Canadian Trade Commission in Hong Kong gave them special entry. They settled in Ottawa and Adrienne began her educational journey there. After obtaining an Honours Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts degrees, she went to study in Paris.
In 1965 she combined her skills and experiences and began a lengthy career with CBC as a host, interviewer, writer, and producer. Adrienne became the first visible minority on the forefront of a national television program. She also wrote for important media outlets, published books, and hosted her own television show. Adrienne was appointed as the 26th Governor-General, making her the first person of Asian heritage to hold a high position in the Canadian government.
Raymond Moriyama was born on October 11, 1929, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Being of Japanese descent, his family was sent to Internment Camps during the Second World War. Raymond enjoyed nature and built himself a treehouse to escape harassment and bullying in the camp. After gaining his post-secondary degrees, Raymond began his career as an architect. His notable first projects were the Ontario Science Centre and the Japanese Canadian Centre. He went on to create an architecture firm with Ted Teshima. Together they completed memorable projects, including:
- Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library
- The Canadian Embassy in Toyko
- The National Museum of Saudia Arabia
- The New Canadian War Museum
Raymond Moriyama has won many awards and is a Member of the Order of Ontario and Champion of the Order of Canada.
Shyam Selvadurai (Award-winning author)
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Shyam Selvadurai was born in Sri Lanka in 1965. His family immigrated to Canada when he was 19 years of age to escape the 1983 race riots that took place in Columbo. He pursued post-secondary education in Toronto and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1989.
With the education he gained at York University (in theatre and creative writing), Shyam went on to work as a scriptwriter for television before focusing on writing fiction. His lived experiences inspired him to craft a vulnerable first novel, Funny Boy. It's a touching coming-of-age story set during the years leading up to the 1983 riots. It won many awards in both Canada (First Novel Award) and the United States (Lambda Literary Award). It was named a notable book by the American Library Association and became a bestseller in Canada.
King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL Colour Barrier by Paula Johanson
Larry Kwong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, was born in British Columbia on June 17, 1923. He took an interest in hockey while listening to “Hockey Night in Canada” on the radio. His goal: to play a National Hockey League (NHL) game. Larry Kwong faced discrimination during his career. He was denied entry to the United States to play with his team, even though he showed his Canadian birth certificate.
Years later while playing for the New York Rangers, Larry got the chance to play during an NHL game. It was a short-lived opportunity but Larry Kwong was the first Canadian of Asian heritage to play in the NHL.
Dr. Irene Uchida (Scientist)
Irene Uchida was born on April 8, 1917. She developed a passion to help people after her best friend died in a car crash and her sister passed away from tuberculosis. While studying at the University of British Columbia she also fought for equal rights for Japanese Canadians. She took a break from her studies after two years and went to Japan. She later returned home in 1941 just as the Second World War was underway. Although Irene and her family were Japanese Canadians, they were amongst the 20,000 individuals that were forced into Internment camps. Despite what she and her family endured, she chose to stay in Canada after the war ended and complete her post-secondary education. Irene began studying the genetics of twins while working at the Toronto Sick Kids Hospital and went on to become a groundbreaking geneticist. Irene earned many awards and was recognized as the first Canadian woman to study the effects of radiation on unborn babies.
Naranjan Singh Grewall (First East Indian person elected to political office)
Naranjan Singh Grewall was born in East Punjab and immigrated to British Columbia in 1941 where he worked as a millwright. He later made a name for himself as an influential business leaders. Grewall owned and operated six sawmill companies. In 1950, he decided to make a political run for office. He became the first Sikh councilor in North America. Naranjan was known for his community involvement, fighting for equal wages and safe working conditions. He was a dedicated man who paved the way for Indo-Canadians and was elected chairman of the Board of Governors in 1954.
Baljit Sethi (Advocate for immigrants)
Baljit Sethi was born in India and immigrated to Canada in 1972. When she arrived, she learned that her teaching credentials from India were not recognized. She was devoted to making a difference in Canada and took on substitute jobs while volunteering with an immigration association. Baljit went back to school and gained Canadian credentials in counseling. Baljit had a passion for helping others getting settled and founded the Immigrant and Multicultural Services organization. She went to great lengths to help get individuals and families settled, even if it meant retrieving them from the airport herself! Baljit Sethi’s contributions and dedication were recognized with many awards such as the Order of British Columbia and the Paul Yuzyk Award for Multiculturalism.
Notable Groups of Asian-Canadians
We'd also like to recognize some group contributions.
The Canadian Japanese Baseball Team
The Asahi team was formed in British Columbia. Though they faced tremendous abuse and racism both on and off the field, they were dedicated to the sport. In 1942, the team could officially no longer continue when all the members were taken into a Japanese Internment Camp. Many players brought their baseball equipment and uniforms with them, built baseball diamonds, formed teams, and played with other prisoners and guards. The Asahi team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of fame in 2003 and, in 2005, into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame.
The Sikh-Canadians in World War I
Even though the rights of citizenship were denied, 10 Canadians of Sikh descent (based on military records) served within the Canadian Army in World War I.
The Chinese-Canadians in World War II
For Chinese-Canadians, it was difficult to serve in World War II due to racialized barring. In 1944, pressure was put on the Canadian government by the British War Office to allow Chinese-Canadians to work for the Special Operations Executive. Hundreds of Chinese-Canadians took the chance to actively serve Canada during World War II.
The Chinese Students Soccer Team
The team formed in 1920 in Vancouver, British Columbia. They won the Provincial Championship in 1933 and brought pride and inspiration to the Chinese Community during the period of the Chinese Immigration Act. The team was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of fame in 2011.
Here are just a few recommended books to get started. You can find more recommendations on our Asian Heritage Month 2021 reading lists:
- Asian Heritage 2021 - Adult Reading List
- Asian Heritage 2021 - Teen Reading List
- Asian Heritage 2021 - Children's Reading List
Room for All of Us by Adrienne Clarkson
In Search of a Soul: Designing and Realizing the New Canadian War by Raymond Moriyama
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam
Stories for South Asian Super Girls by Raj Kaur Khaira
Visit our Asian Heritage webpage for more, including recommended reading lists and virtual events.
Take a virtual tour of Plum Blossom from the Bitter Cold, one of our TD Gallery exhibits from 2019. The exhibit featured selections from the Chinese Canadian Archive.
We also have great resources on our New to Canada page and New to Canada blog.
For historic photos of Asian-Canadians, check out our Digital Archive. It includes rare historical photos, maps, books and more!
Again, this isn't a complete list of notable Asian-Canadians. Who else would you like to celebrate this Asian Heritage Month? Share in the comments below!