The Unhyphenated Canadian

As a second-generation immigrant and the proud son of two parents who were refugees from the Vietnam War, I have always grappled with my identity and who I am. I would often wonder whether I am Chinese (they are of Chinese descent), Vietnamese (where they are from), or Canadian (I was born in Canada) and which of these tribes I belonged to.

Am I Chinese? Or am I Vietnamese-Canadian? Perhaps I am some unwieldy hyphenated combination of the three. For most of my young adulthood, I had settled on just Canadian, but what Spur has helped me to realize is that I am all of these identities and more.

Inspired by Abdul Nakua, one of the panelists for the discussion on Human Migration and the Changing Demographics of Canada, I will henceforth describe myself as a Canadian with Chinese and Vietnamese heritage. This is because I am an amalgamation of the values from these three cultures as well as the many different cultures that I have been exposed to, and had the privilege of working with and knowing here in Canada and abroad.

A Two-way Street

This concept of an unhyphenated Canadian was first espoused by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1958. Mind you, he was referring to language at the time of emerging Quebec separatism, but it is equally applicable today in our diverse and multicultural country.

And it is this multiculturalism that makes Canada great and why countries from across the world continue to look to us as the model for immigration. Dana Wagner, another speaker on the panel, attributes it to how we do immigration. She believes “it’s a two-way street” where we are getting the best of multiple cultures, and I agree.

Let me give you an example. The Canadian thing to do when you see that someone or something is wrong is to speak up. Now, what happens if that wrong is being committed by someone older than you? The Confucian virtue of respect for elders would demand silence. The Canadian in me however cannot remain silent and, much to the chagrin of some of my relatives, I will speak up and our family is better for it.

This same Confucian philosophy has been invaluable in guiding my interactions and work with people from different communities. I wear many hats and one of them is as a military officer in Canada’s Naval Reserves. In this environment of hierarchy and order, respect for elders has proven to be an invaluable virtue in helping me to respect other leaders for their skills and experience regardless of rank.

Two Paths Forward

The world is at a crossroads on what to do in the face of massive population displacement from war, famine, and tragedy. Canada has chosen to take the harder path with respect to the Syrian crisis, but it’s a journey that we have taken before.

We are taking the same path that welcomed my parents into this amazing country nearly three decades ago. Yes, there are dissenting voices like there was back then. Yes, it will take hard work. And yes, it will not be easy, but we know from experience that our country will be better for it.

In 25 years at #Spur41, the Spur Public Fellow could very well be one of the children of the 25,000 Syrian Refugees we had just welcomed to Canada earlier this year. I don’t know about you, but for me, that is an exciting thing to think about.


Kevin is a connector, city-builder, and military officer working to build a stronger, more resilient and prosperous Canada through social innovation and cross-sectoral collaboration.

As Head of Municipal Partnerships at Magnet, Kevin is building cross-sectoral partnerships across Canada to combat unemployment and underemployment among individuals facing barriers connecting to jobs. He is also a CivicAction DiverseCity Fellow, former banker, and a naval intelligence officer active in city-building.

In Toronto, Kevin serves as Co-Chair of the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy, the Steering Committee for Poverty Reduction TO, and other city committees and community boards. He also sits on the University of Western Ontario, his alma mater, Council of Presidents as Chairman of the Dan Management Advisory Council.

Named Canada’s Top Under 30 Pan-Asian leader in 2014 and a 2015 RBC Emerging Scholar, Kevin has represented Canada at the 2010 G8 and G20 Summits, the 2013 G20 Summit and a trade mission to the Asian Pacific. Most recently, he was awarded a Harvard Kennedy School of Government fellowship and selected to take part in their Emerging Leaders program in the summer of 2016.

© 2017 Spur Festival | Mailing list