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Senators share reflections on Asian Heritage Month 2024

A banner displaying colourful patterns for Asian Heritage Month.

Every May, Canadians are invited to reflect and learn about the important and ongoing contributions of Canadians of Asian descent in all sectors of society. Former senator Vivienne Poy, the first Chinese-Canadian senator, tabled a motion in the Senate in 2001 to designate May as Asian Heritage Month. 

As celebrations roll out across Canada for Asian Heritage Month, nine senators share their personal stories and reflections on what this month means to them. This year marks the last Asian Heritage Month in the Red Chamber for senators Jaffer, Oh and Omidvar who are retiring this year.

Senator Salma Ataullahjan 

As the first Canadian senator of Pakistani origin, I always look forward to Asian Heritage Month. It is a moment to fully embrace and appreciate the rich cultural tapestry that is our country. This is thanks to contributions by Canadians of Asian descent, as much in regard to language, traditions and a rich cultural heritage. I strongly believe that we can only gain from blending our cultures, as it can lead to new traditions, delicious dishes and diverse communities.

Senator Mobina S.B. Jaffer

May marks the beginning of Asian Heritage Month, an occasion for all Canadians to reflect on Canada’s diversity and to honour the invaluable contributions of those of Asian descent.    

Reflecting on my own journey, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by those of Asian descent who have laid the very foundation upon which we all now stand. For me, my father and mother were my strong pillars. Sherali Bandali Jaffer, my father, was a passionate activist and Member of Parliament in Uganda who instilled in me a sense of duty and commitment to social justice and advocacy. His journey inspired my path as a senator dedicated to championing the rights and voices of marginalized communities. 

Gulbanu Sherali Bandali Jaffer, my mother, was the first woman to attend university in her home country of Kenya. Her unwavering belief in the power of education pushed me forward. Among all difficulties, she taught me the importance of knowledge as pathways to empowerment. They both taught me to advocate for the rights of all, regardless of their walks of life. 

It is my honour as the first senator of South Asian descent to leave these words to aspiring Asian youth: never take no as an answer. If you have a dream, chase it with unwavering resolve and determination. Embrace each challenge as an opportunity for growth, and never allow your self-doubt to limit your dreams. 

I am extremely proud of my South Asian heritage and culture, and I am grateful for the opportunities that Canada has given me. I look forward to celebrating the diversity of Asian cultures this month.

Senator Victor Oh

In honour of my last Asian Heritage Month in the Senate, I would like to leave a few key lessons I have acquired in my many years to the young people who make up our vibrant community. My hope is that these fragments of wisdom may help while venturing your complex journeys. 

Be proud and celebrate your heritage. We are fortunate to live in a multicultural country where our differences greatly contribute to our rich and distinctive society. Embrace these differences and remember that your uniqueness is your greatest asset. 

Build strong relationships. Surround yourself with supportive friends, mentors, and allies who encourage to you to grow and strive towards greater accomplishments. Cultivate meaningful connections and then pay it forward by offering support to others. 

Get involved in your community and give back. Being of service to others feels good and brings a sense of belonging — something that is critical yet often overlooked today. 

Education is the cornerstone of empowerment. Knowledge opens doors and expands possibilities. If you can cultivate a lifelong hunger for knowledge, it will yield exponential benefits. 

And lastly, embrace failure as a stepping-stone. Failure is not the opposite of success; it is a part of the journey and will often be your greatest teacher. 

From my many years of experience, I have seen time and time again those who embrace similar principles navigate the complexities of life with resilience and a balance of fulfillment and joy. I wish this kind of success and contentment for all of Canada’s aspiring Asian youth. May you flourish and find gratification in contributing to something greater than yourself.

Senator F. Gigi Osler

"Get a good education so you can stand on your own two feet. Nobody can take that away from you." 

While it may be a stereotype that Asian parents emphasize the importance of education, this phrase was often repeated to me (especially as the only daughter) growing up. 

As a child of immigrant parents — my father was born in India and my mother was born in the Philippines — my parents recognized the opportunities that opened up with a good education, especially here in Canada. 

My mother came to Winnipeg as a young nurse in the mid-1960s as one of the first waves of nurses recruited from the Philippines. It was her grandmother who advised her to continue her schooling (at the time many of her friends were completing the minimum education requirements and then getting married) so she could “make something of herself”. My mother finished high school and then enrolled herself in nursing school with the goal of moving to North America. 

So, with May being both Asian Heritage Month and the month to celebrate Mother’s Day, I want to honour my fierce (often headstrong) mother who shaped, guided (pushed) and inspired me to become the person I am today.

Senator Andrew Cardozo

As Asian Heritage Month unfolds across Canada this May, it brings with it this special time for celebration and reflection. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the rich contributions of Asian communities in shaping what Canada means to all of us and how in the telling of our stories we craft belonging. 

At the heart of Asian Heritage Month lies a tribute to diversity, which also promotes belonging. By embracing diversity as a source of strength, we can forge stronger bonds of solidarity and unity. 

I think of journalist and anchor for CBC News Ian Hanomansing; Shyam Selvadurai known for his acclaimed novel Funny Boy; Kim Thúy, author of the award-winning novel Ru adapted into a film released in 2023; and Academy Award-winning director Domee Shi whose debut feature Turning Red was the first Pixar film to be set in Canada. These profound influences are woven into the fabric of the nation. 

In this spirit of reflection and celebration, let us honor the legacy of Asian Canadians and reaffirm our commitment to building a more just, inclusive and equitable society for all.

Senator Yonah Martin

Asian Heritage Month is a time for all Canadians to celebrate the achievements of Asian Canadians throughout our nation’s history and reflect on the positive impact they have had on the betterment of Canadian society. I am acutely aware that I stand on the foundation that they built for me and countless others; and that we are benefiting from their efforts to create a more inclusive society. 

I am a daughter of the Republic of Korea, the country of my birth that tens of thousands of Canadians defended from communist tyranny during the Korean War; and a daughter of Canada, the country that embraced me and my family in which I belong as a proud and loyal citizen. My parents chose Canada and on my 7th birthday, Canada was my gift and the home I have come to cherish. 

During Asian Heritage Month and throughout the year, I am grateful to be able to serve my province and my country in my capacity as a senator. Let us all be filled with gratitude for the Asian Canadian pioneers and role models who paved the way for us to live with the very freedoms and equal opportunities we have today.

Senator Ratna Omidvar 

I was born in India, educated in Germany and married in Iran. As a result, I have enjoyed the privilege of being exposed to many cultures and languages. By birth I was an Indian citizen, by marriage I became Iranian and through displacement I became a Canadian. I had to work hard for and fight for my Canadian citizenship and I wear it both with great pride and great responsibility.  

I spent the first 20 years of my life in India. The greatest influence in my youth were the stories of displacement that were told in my family leading up to the partition of India into two countries by the British in 1947. This resulted in the greatest migration of people of the times. The stories captured fear, death and murder, but also humanity and compassion. I learnt early on that hope and despair can coexist at the same time.  

Many years later, I too was a victim of political circumstances and in my moments of despair, I reached for hope, as told to me by my grandmother in that dusty town in the Punjab. I continue to reach for hope in my work as a senator, especially as I witness the growing displacement from trouble spots in the world.  

My South Asian language, culture and identity are still a core part of my being and I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate it as a Canadian. 

I would give the following words of advice to Asian youth: Know where you come from to know where you are going; the core values from our Asian culture can enhance the core values of being Canadian. Find someone you can look up to and learn from their successes and their failures. Be curious about the world — there is great value in asking the questions, “why, when, who, how.”

Senator Mohamed-Iqbal Ravalia

Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity to delve into the myriad accomplishments and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent, who have intricately shaped the tapestry of our society over time. While we rejoice in the remarkable diversity that enriches our nation, it is equally crucial to firmly oppose all manifestations of anti-Asian racism and discrimination. This commitment to equity extends beyond my beloved home province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Increased education, awareness and representation stand as pivotal pillars in our collective efforts to foster a more inclusive Canada.

Senator Yuen Pau Woo

On the occasion of Asian Heritage Month 2024 (AHM), I would like to recognize the contributions of Asian Canadians that span the range of personalities, professions and passions that make up our country. Even so, we remain underrepresented in leadership positions across business, education, civil society and politics. It is bad enough that visible minorities may not be considered for the seniormost jobs because of their backgrounds; what is worse is the tendency to box Asian Canadians according to stereotypes about what they are good at or to stigmatize them because of their affiliations and views. There is much to celebrate in the rich and diverse heritage of Asian Canadians, but 23 years after AHM launched, Asian Canadians should be seen as having more to offer the country than their fables, festivals and foods. I invite Asian Canadians to join together in claiming their place in all domains of society — this month, and every month of every year.


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