CUPE BC holds its first “Worker of Colour Conference”: Jenny Kwan shares personal story of growing up and not fitting in

Moe Sihota rocked the house at the opening session on Monday night.  Jenny Kwan told her personal heart-warming story about the journey to find her cultural and political identity.

It's the first ever “worker of colour” conference, hosted by CUPE BC.  I am attending as a member of CUPE 391, Vancouver Library Workers. We have four members attending the conference.

This morning's session opened with a panel discussion featuring Dr. Sunera Thobani (UBC Professor, Women's Studies), Raj Chouhan (MLA Burnaby Edmonds), Jenny Kwan (MLA Vancouver Mount Pleasant), and Sid Chow Tan (Founding co-chair of Head Tax Families Society of Canada).

Each speaker talked about their own experiences in dealing with racism, as well as their community activism and what they saw as ways to address it.  And each speaker received standing ovations.  Thobani talked about racism in society, and the challenges of racial profiling in the wake of 9-11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Chouhan talked about his community work as founding president of the Canadian Farmworkers Union, and how it is important for unions to be active.  Tan talked about the Chinese head tax redress campaign, and how unions have been leaders in racism a century ago, and how they helped lead the CCF party and overturning racist legislation in 1947.

For me, the most powerful talk came from Jenny Kwan.  I have heard her speak a few times, but this was the first time I have heard her speak about the challenges of growing up as an immigrant in a strange culture.  Kwan arrived in Vancouver at age nine, but never felt that she felt in.  She explained how challenging it was for her mother to go to work, so her father could attend ESL classes in order to get a better job.  She described reacting against her immigrant parents, and speaking only
English to them, when they could only understand Chinese.  She also described thinking that she was useless, and nobody would miss her if she died.

The turning point came when Kwan revisited her birthplace of Hong Kong, and saw the life her parents left behind so that they could come to Canada to build a better life for themselves and their children.  She then realized and appreciated the sacrifices they made, and she buckled down returning to SFU to complete her studies.  Kwan also became a community activist, working as a legal advocate.  In an effort to make a greater positive change for people's lives, she became the youngest ever councilor for Vancouver City Council in 1993.  In 1998, she became the first Chinese-Canadian cabinet minister as Minister of Municipal Affairs.

But it hasn't always been easy.  Whether it was because she was young, a woman, or a person of colour – Kwan was not treated with equal respect.  She shared stories from both her time as a city councilor and a MLA when male white opposition colleagues did their best to belittle and intimidate her.

For me, Kwan's story drove home the struggles that many people of colour face, not only from racial discrimination at school, or in the work place, but more importantly the struggle to fit in and find a cultural identity that is not in conflict with parental expectations and mainstream integration.  These same themes were repeated in the workshops that conference attendees sat on, addressing multicultural and racial issues in the union, the workplace, the community, political arena, as well as racial profiling.

I attended the workshop titled “Walking the Walk in the community.”  It was led by Sid Chow Tan and Shashi Assanand.  With 14 other union brothers and sisters, we shared our own experience of racism, and issues of colour.  We discussed barriers to equal opportunity and also suggested solutions to these challenges.  Everybody came up with ideas that could help combat racism, as well as to promote cultural understanding.  We left the workshop feeling positive and vowing to take these informative ideas back to our unions and workplaces.

Tomorrow…. expect more of the same!

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