The Obama presidency in the United States is historic. He has a vision to bring people together, to move beyond racial divides, perceived stereotypes and the cultures of blame and “otherness.”
My own life views have been shaped by growing up as a multi-generational racial minority in Canada. I have learned about the discrimination and hatred faced and overcome by my ancestors, since the time my maternal great-great-grandfather Rev. Chan Yu Tan arrived in 1896, as a Methodist lay preacher for the Chinese Methodist Church of Canada. Similarly, my paternal grandfather also faced many challenges arriving in Canada in 1882 at the young age of 16.
But I have also learned about the importance of communities working together. My life path has involved me with many community organizations such as Canadian University Press, Hope Cancer Health Centre, Terry Fox Run Organization, Canadian Mental Health Association, Chinese Cultural Centre, Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens, Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society, and many many more.
Yesterday (January 20), the world’s most powerful man placed his hand on Lincoln’s Bible and became the 44th president of the U.S. Next week, on a dark day in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government will present a budget, and a coalition led by Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, and Gilles Duceppe might take the opportunity to bring it down.
While the U.S. has its super-leader, Canada has the old, clichéd
“crisis in leadership”. Looking south, it’s easy to feel, well, a
So, who is Canada’s Barack Obama? Who can lead us out of years of deadlocked minorities?
I argue that not only is an Obama figure not waiting in the wings; he or she simply can’t exist here.
Here’s why: Obama represents the high-minded ideals of the 1791 U.S.
Bill of Rights, while Canada treats our history like yesterday’s soup
Americans love their history. In his inaugural speech—really, in every
speech—Obama took every opportunity to join his personal story to the
greater story of the United States. It’s an easy connection to make.
For Canada to breed an Obama, we have to have a better picture of what
Canada means, and promote someone who’s comfortable tying his or her
own story to Canada’s not-always-glorious history.
As a kid, Obama grew up without a dad around, in relative obscurity. He
is the biracial son of an African immigrant and a white-bread Kansas
hippie, and was raised by his grandmother in Hawaii. Now he’s
president. That speaks to opportunity.
Think quick: what document was Canada built on? If you guessed the British North America Act of 1867, you’re right. It’s not exactly stirring stuff.
Frankly, it would be difficult to know if someone came along who
represented the early ideals of Canada. He or she must speak English
and French and respect the authority of the Queen’s representative, but
apart from that, it’s pretty fuzzy.
So who is Canada’s Obama? Justin Trudeau’s name
has been floated, but there’s a couple of problems. First, he’s
Canadian royalty—the son of a prime minister, he has been immersed in
privilege forever. Second, he’s a white guy. Third, he hasn’t
established a career for himself yet, beyond teaching high school
French. Sure, he’s a young dad, charismatic, attractive, and extremely
well-spoken, but he’s already entrenched in party politics. And that is
Obama’s magic. He seemingly came out of nowhere.
Here’s my nominee for an Obama in Canada: Todd Wong, the founder of Gung Haggis Fat Choy.
The wildly charismatic Vancouverite is a leader in bridging cultures
in an unpretentious, original way. His Gung Haggis Fat Choy event has
been replicated all over the world. A fifth-generation Chinese
Canadian, Wong also lobbied to save Joy Kogawa’s childhood home and for head-tax redress. He organizes dragon-boat teams.
But what’s sold me on Wong as Canada’s Obama is that he’s a Vancouver
library assistant. It’s a humble job, but it’s a little like Obama’s
background as a community organizer. At least the way Wong does it.
On the picket line in 2007, he played his accordion and organized a strike reading series with Hiromi Goto, Stan Persky,
and others. At Gung Haggis Fat Choy, politicians from every party come
out for deep fried haggis wontons. He describes the event, to be celebrated this year on January 25 at Floata Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown, as something that “represents Canada in the 21st century”.
“Anyone in that room could be part of your family,” he told the Straight.
Here’s where it falls apart. Wong has no interest in politics.
“If I get into politics, I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of community service work I do now,” he told the Straight.
That may be true, Todd. But I, for one, think that as prime minister
you could be one wicked Obama-esque orator, reinvigorate our connection
to history, and offer a fresh face to represent the new Canada.
So, how about it?