Dr. Joseph Wong has contributed greatly to civic life across our region and has had great impact as a social activist in the Chinese Community. In all his work, Joseph has proven how successful community building is when we tap into the diversity and multiculturalism across our region. As Chair of the Board he used his skills and passion to help shape United Way into the reputable charity it is today. When he’s not working as a doctor, he’s a philanthropist and spends his time spearheading multiple award-winning campaigns and organisations to better our communities. When Joseph sees an issue, he responds immediately with a solution and activates his community. One such example of his drive, is his creation of the Chinese Canadian National Council to battle discrimination of Chinese labourers entering Canada.
Read more about Joseph, why he does what he does and how he drives success in our Leadership in Focus interview with him here.
Q: How did you start your professional career? Did you always know that this was something you wanted to do?
I was born into a very poor neighbourhood in Hong Kong and from a young age I saw a lot of social injustice. Most of my neighbours did not get the chance to finish primary or secondary school. Medical care was lacking and most people did not receive medical attention until they were near death. In the 1950’s, roughly 90% of the population was poor. There were very few families that considered themselves middle class and a small percentage were extremely rich. This gap between rich and the poor was so big that poor people had little chance of ever getting ahead.
I remember when I was ten years old I wanted to be a teacher or a medical doctor, but I wasn’t sure at the time how much education I needed. It seemed like an unrealistic dream for a child from the neighbourhood I lived in to become a professional. In the 1970’s / 80’s when Hong Kong economically progressed, people were demanding more freedom, democracy, welfare, and social safety. Out of this growth, two basic things—education and medical care—were seen as more attainable.
Q: Who was the biggest influence to you in your path as a leader?
My father was my biggest role model. I remember my father working 14 hour days, 363 days a year. When I was in Hong Kong, I didn’t know why people used the term weekend because to me every day was a work day. When I came to North America, the two words “coffee” and “break” were very strange to me.
My father had a sense of responsibility for the whole family. Always providing for us while only making roughly HK$300 ($50 CAD) a month. He worked so hard and took very little for himself. He brought every penny home in order to put food on the table, and to make sure that we had some form of education. He has been my idol forever.
In the late 1960’s, my girlfriend at the time had the opportunity to bring her whole family, including me, to Canada. Initially I planned to stay in Hong Kong because I was admitted to a top school which had a great track record of getting students into medicine. I told my father about the opportunity to to Canada, and he encouraged me to come to Canada and find my dreams here. He used all of his savings to help me to come to Canada and study at McGill University.
For this reason, I have never complained about work because I don’t think I could ever work as hard as my father. Without my father’s support, I would not be where I am today.
Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are several.
The experience I had of helping Southeast Asian refugees in 1979 was the changing point in my career. In 1979 I learned of the Vietnamese boat people who escaped Vietnam after their country fell to communism. But the number of refugees reached tidal levels in 1978/1979 and that was when I knew I had to help them resettle in Canada. I joined forces with a Jewish group to appeal to the government and the Canadian public to accept more refugees. From 1979-1982, I believe we admitted a total of 100,000 refugees. Because we admitted so many refugees in Ontario at that time, there was a lack of medical care to support them. My clinic addressed this gap by taking care of refugees for free. Since 1982 I started my own clinic close to Mount Sinai so that people could easily identify and access my office. I have been working there as a medical physician for the last 35 years.
The second thing that changed my perception of the work that I do was a W5 Campaign in 1980. I saw a documentary on W5 that aired on CTV, accusing children of Chinese decent of taking away the rightful place of Canadians. I recall the episode alluding to the fact that Chinese and foreign students were taking up all the spots in universities. A very serious and disheartening accusation. Whenever they spoke of Canadians you would see white faces on the screen, however when they would speak of foreigners they only showed Chinese faces. That particular episode enraged the whole Chinese community and while I was working very hard on the refugee resettlement in Toronto, I started a cross-country campaign against this program. Eventually after 6 months CTV agreed that this segment was racist. They initially sent a formal apology and later on issued a public one.
The one factor that was crucial in helping us succeed in this struggle, was that we insisted on dealing with this through a class-action lawsuit. We put trust in the hands of Ian Scott, a well-known lawyer in Canada and insisted on suing them even though many thought we would lose. From then, I have seen great progress from CTV and I admire their willingness to apologize and change.
I also spear-headed the Chinese redress movement in 2006. The Prime Minister at the time apologized to the Chinese-Canadian community for the unfair head-tax and exclusion act. To provide some context, in 1887, the head-tax started. Only Chinese people had to pay a head-tax which meant the government was targeting and singling out a minority community, not to mention legally discriminating against them. In 1923-1947 the government got rid of the head-tax act, but legislated the Chinese Exclusion Act to replace it. This meant Chinese people were still not welcome in the country. That was the only legislation formally and legally discriminating against Chinese people in the history of this nation.
Q: What can rising and senior leaders do to help address the issues they’re passionate about, including the issue of a lack of leadership diversity?
I learned a lot about this during my time at United Way. When I joined the board of United Way, the board did not reflect the communities we served at the time. I was the first coloured immigrant to serve on the board, and there were only three females among a sea of men. I remember when I became Chair of the board, it made for big news as I was the first non-white Chair.
Since then, the board and senior leadership worked collaboratively to promote diversity within United Way. We underwent organizational changes first and then applied the same principles and practices to all the agencies that United Way funded. This was important because we claimed to be serving communities that looked nothing like our leadership. United Way was showing all organizations that embracing multiculturalism and embracing diversity is the right thing to do.
Q: You’ve been a big advocate of diverse leadership… Why is diverse leadership, specifically in our region (the GTHA) so important?
I look back 30 years ago when Pierre Trudeau declared Canada to be multicultural and put multiculturalism in our constitution. That was a remarkable step for Canada. He had foresight in knowing that we need to have respect for diversity and need to be embracing multiculturalism as a fundamental nature of our nation.
When you cultivate diverse leadership, you are cultivating the best talent. People that are not only highly capable of doing their jobs but also bring diverse perspectives based on their unique identity and the communities they represent. When you recruit the best talent, this is not only great for your organization but also for society as a whole.
On the other hand, when we discriminate against any minority community we are putting them at a great disadvantage and nobody receives discrimination lying down.
Q: Is there any advice you’d give to rising leaders?
1) Equitable treatment of all people.
Embrace diversity, if you don’t you are doomed to fail, no question.. My guiding principle is “treat people the way you want to be treated”.
2) Have a broad vision.
Look at everybody, not only your own community or people. I think Yee Hong is a good example because we are not only serving the Chinese community but serving other disadvantaged communities and providing a scalable model to replicate.
3) Be courageous.
It is important to have courage. You need to go out there and do it rather than standing on the sidelines. Many people discouraged me when I was setting up the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care. But we were able to do it. And not only did we do it, but we expanded to four centres and became the largest non-profit geriatric centre in North America that has raised over 100 million dollars. We serve four different Asian communities by serving seniors in a culturally relevant way. I am so passionate about serving our seniors because these are the people who gave so much to build up our communities.
4) You have to always be learning.
It is important for us to be humble and learn from everyone we encounter.
The more you learn, the more you’ll know. The more you learn, the more you know that you don’t know everything. Looking back I know I received so much from my volunteer commitments, even more than I was able to give.