Asian Heritage Month: An interview with Vivienne Poy
The early years of the Honorable Dr. Vivienne Poy were very tumultuous ones. Born in Hong Kong in 1941, the Second World War forced her family to flee when she was only three months old. She and her family spent the War as refugees in China, finally returning to Hong Kong at the end of the conflict.
In 1959, Dr. Poy enrolled at McGill University in Montreal. She went on to achieve a PhD in History from the University of Toronto and later served as chancellor from 2003 to 2006. Dr. Poy also completed a diploma in Fashion Arts at Seneca College in 1981 and enjoyed huge success as a fashion designer, entrepreneur and corporate director. Dr. Poy is well known as a dedicated community volunteer, serving with many charitable organizations over the years.
In 1998, Dr. Poy became the first Canadian of Asian descent to be appointed to the Senate of Canada. While in the Senate, she played a key role in having Asian Heritage Month recognized by the federal government as a national observance. Dr. Poy’s image is also featured in the Museum’s exhibit about Canada’s Chinese Head Tax, located in the Canadian Journeys gallery. I recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Poy about why Asian Heritage Month is important to her and about her own experience as a Canadian of Chinese Heritage.1
You were instrumental in having Asian Heritage Month recognized across Canada. Why was it important to you to have national recognition of this month?
Asians have been settling in Canada for hundreds of years. While they suffered severe discrimination historically, they continued to work hard and persevered while making sure that their children were well educated, which benefitted Canada tremendously. May as Asian Heritage Month allows Canadians to celebrate and recognize the contributions of this significant segment of Canadian society.
You have been very involved in several different fields of work in your life – fashion, business, academia and politics, to name just a few. What kind of challenges did you face as a Canadian of Chinese descent?
Due to the fact that I did not work outside the home until the beginning of the 1980s, I did not suffer any special challenge as a Chinese Canadian in the various fields, with the exception of politics. When I was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1998, I was the first Asian in the Senate, and it was like putting a square peg into a round hole. A few of the Senators were very friendly and helpful, but I had the feeling that many didn't think I had a right be there. Not having come from a political background, it was challenging learning to survive in Ottawa.
When you became a Senator in 1998, you focused on issues such as gender, multiculturalism, immigration and human rights. What personal experiences made these issues so important to you?
I was fortunate that there were no special personal issues. It was my awareness that discrimination and marginalization existed, and still does, in these areas in Canadian society, and I wanted to make a difference.
Do you have advice for Canadians – both Asian and non-Asian – on how they should mark Asian Heritage Month?
Canadians of different heritages and backgrounds can come together to celebrate our differences, enjoy each other's foods and cultures, and appreciate that we live in a country that welcomes people from all over the world.