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TV series celebrates women in ethnic groups
by Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun, 1/11/2006

Mother Tongue is the result of journalist's look at diversity in Canada

During the day, Mary Lee Chan used to work long hours in the garment factories of Gastown where she often operated the big steam presses. Even in those unorganized workplaces, Chan always helped her fellow garment workers, acting as a go-between with management.

At night and on weekends, Chan used her communication skills for something different: she helped save Strathcona and left a legacy for all of Vancouver.

The era was the late 1960s when many federal and civic officials across the country believed in what was called urban redevelopment. It meant razing inner city neighbourhoods where working people owned their own homes and replacing them with concrete apartment towers full of renters.
By 1968, Strathcona faced complete destruction --including the Chan family home at 658 Keefer, one of the neighbourhood's typical three-storey wood-frame houses.

But Chan was having none of that. Accompanied by her daughter Shirley, Chan started knocking on her neighbours' doors. She usually wore a second-hand cloth coat and carried in her shopping bag a petition for residents to sign.

"'I'm calling on you to let you know that your home will be demolished according to a plan of the city,'" she would tell neighbours, according to Shirley.

"'What I'm trying to do is to invite you to a meeting and ask you to help, make your voice known to council.'"

Along with other housewife activists such as Bessie Lee, the campaign moved into high gear when they formed the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association. They introduced grassroots innovations that we take for granted today such as translating documents into both English and Chinese and holding meetings with politicians around tables of food. They held public meetings on Sunday afternoons because most area residents were too tired to attend after work from Monday to Friday.

Politicians noticed. Thanks to her mother's lobbying efforts, Shirley managed to accompany Paul Hellyer, the minister of transportation responsible for urban renewal, on a city-organized bus tour of Strathcona. Shown the neighbourhood through the eyes of a resident, the minister realized that urban renewal was much more than just bricks and mortar.

Shortly after, the federal government placed a moratorium on urban redevelopment across the country. Strathcona was saved.

Viewers will get a chance to find out more about Mary Lee Chan and other remarkable women from multicultural communities across the country when a new series begins Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Channel M. Called Mother Tongue: A Woman's History of Ethnic Canada, the 13-part series starts with the story of Eliza Parker, an African-American who escaped slavery in Maryland and headed north to Canada where she and her husband William established a free black community called The Elgin Settlement. Located in North Buxton, Ontario, the settlement still has descendants of those original inhabitants, including 16-year-old Toni Parker, the great, great granddaughter of Eliza.

The episode on Mary Lee Chan, who died in 2002, airs Sunday, Jan. 29.

Mother Tongue is directed, written and produced by journalist Susan Poizner. The idea for the series came after Poizner returned home to Toronto from the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001. She wanted to recapture the kind of ethnic diversity she encountered during years spent travelling and living in countries such as Israel, England, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Initially, she looked at doing a series on ethnic foods. That soon changed into a history of the largely untold story of immigrant women who have made remarkable contributions to the country.
Documenting stories of women from many different backgrounds who felt as Canadian as anyone changed Poizner's own idea of what it meant to be a Canadian.

"I had been raised in a Jewish family and community and never felt that I was really Canadian," Poizner said. "Doing the series was really about my discovery of my own country."
Other women profiled in the series include Doukhobor-Canadian Anna Markova, Japanese-Canadian Kimiko Murakami, Jewish-Canadian Sarah Mayoff, Muslim-Canadian Roshan Jamal, and Vietnamese Canadian May Truong.

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