In memory of James Pon
June 1, 2013
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The story of James Pon’s life was in many ways the story of Canada. The story of a man who overcame enormous adversity to succeed and prosper. The story of an immigrant who overcame prejudice, but who loved this country, who helped to create a stronger Canada, raised a wonderful family, and made so many contributions to his fellow Canadians.
It is remarkable to reflect on the life that James Pon lived. Having arrived in Canada at the age of five, imagine travelling across the Pacific Ocean and ending up in Killam, Alberta. I know Killam. It’s a tough little town, in the toughest part of the Prairies. It was a hard-scrabble existence for anyone, especially for the only Chinese family in town. But as we know, following the construction of the CPR, many of the Chinese railway workers who stayed behind and thousands of other hardy souls who came to Canada, paid the head tax, spread out in the small towns of the Canadian Prairies to start businesses, to start restaurants, small stores, and laundromats, often had to overcome what we would now regard as unthinkable prejudices.
But they usually found friends, built up tremendous relationships in those small communities, and they worked so hard to create something out of nothing, as James’s family did. I know that from a very young age, James told me, as he used to tell me whenever I saw him, “You know from Alberta, where the wild buffalos roam”, and he would always tell me the stories of working so hard in his dad’s restaurant and in other businesses in rural Alberta.
He grew up in a Canada where people of Chinese origin were not considered full and equal Canadians. Of course, there were huge and unjust barriers to their migration to Canada, and ultimately, a complete legal barrier through the Exclusion Act between 1922 and 1947. Yet people like James did not give up on Canada, even though, in a certain sense, Canada gave up on them. People like Douglas Jung, born in 1922, when James migrated here, who insisted on seeking to enroll in the Canadian Forces when hostilities broke out in 1939, was unable to do so, but ultimately the Canadian government relented in 1944 and allowed a certain number of brave, young Canadians of Chinese origin to enlist in the Forces, to defeat fascism overseas. Thanks to their sacrifice, ultimately, the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947 and citizenship was granted to all Canadians of Chinese origin.
While James didn’t serve in our county’s uniform, he went through a similar struggle as Douglas Jung. In insisting on being able to serve our country through the de Havilland plant, where he was an incredibly tenacious innovator who helped improve the Mosquito Bombers, and helped win the war effort, for which he was recognized with the Governor General’s Medal. So that’s the spirit of James Pon. That’s the spirit of Canada at its best. A man who was denied an opportunity to serve his country, but did not give up on his country, insisted on being able to serve his fellow Canadians. Through that dignified, hopeful sense of service, through that remarkable patriotism for a country that would not give him the right to vote, or the right to fully serve, he still made sacrifices and was recognized for it.
So it was James and Douglas Jung, and an entire generation of women and men like them, who proved the greatest lesson: that our rights and privileges that we enjoy, through our shared citizenship, are won through our responsibilities and obligations. They exercised those responsibilities even in a country that did not justly recognize their contribution at the time.
James continued to overcome tremendous adversity, going on, in a time which I imagine he was one of the only Canadians of Chinese origin to receive his kind of education, to be recognized as a professional engineer, to work for the Atomic Energy Corporation as a nuclear engineer, to raise a family, and to maintain what all of us who knew James understood to be that winsome optimism, that hopefulness for the future. But he never forgot the past, he never forgot that if he stood tall, it was because he stood on the shoulders of the Chinese pioneers, which is why he wanted to serve them through dignified senior’s housing through the Mon Sheong Foundation, of which he was a co-founder, and it is why he wanted to recognize the essential contribution to the foundation of Canada by the Chinese railway workers. They did not have a voice to speak for themselves. They were written out of Canadian history. When one looks at the iconic photograph of the last spike, one sees not a single one of the Chinese railway workers who made many of the ultimate sacrifices to bind the country together from east to west. But James insisted that we not forget them. James insisted that we memorialize them through the Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada. and ultimately the monument here in downtown Toronto. He had another dream that he carried with him right to his death, which is to establish a Canadian museum to the Chinese railroad workers, and we all hope that is a dream that will one day be fully realized.
Of course, James became a dignified voice for the Chinese head-tax payers. He was one of the last surviving head-tax payers himself. When he was able to travel to Ottawa on the Redress Express, James sat in the gallery of the House of Commons in June of 2006 to hear the Prime Minister formally pronounce the words of regret and apology to Canadians of Chinese origin for a period of legislative discrimination that existed from 1885 to 1947. During that period when we were trying to find the most appropriate form of redress, I worked very closely with James and many of his co-workers, and I can tell you that he was always such a wise, sage and optimistic voice, a dignified voice. His approach to redress wasn’t one of recrimination. He didn’t seek condemnation. He wasn’t seeking division. Instead, he wanted Canadians to learn from the experience of that period of injustice, to look towards the future, to acknowledge the sacrifices of those unforgotten Chinese pioneers who had done so much. And I think his hopeful and humane attitude towards this issue helped to inform what was such a difficult issue for so many decades for Canada to come to terms with. And indeed, every time I encountered James, I always recall that broad smile, that winsome, childlike sense of humour, and that sense of graciousness and optimism.
Vera, to you and your family, to Doug, Louise and Karen and all of your extended family, we express on behalf of the Government of Canada our most sincere condolences. It was for all of us who knew James, a great honour to know such a man of quiet dignity, strength of character, of triumph over adversity. We all join with you in praying that his soul will rest eternally in peace.
Photo of Minister Kenney and Mr. James Pon.
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