I Am Canadian: Setsuko Thurlow

(courtesy Passages to Canada, Historica-Dominion Institute)

My name is Setsuko Thurlow. I am from Hiroshima, Japan. In 1955, after graduating from colleges in Japan and the United States, and after marrying a Canadian in the United States, I immigrated to Canada. In those days, immigration from Asia was prohibited, except for those close relatives of Canadian citizens. So, I became a close relative.

My husband and I both did graduate work at the University of Toronto, I in social work. A severely cold climate, cultural adjustment and demanding academic pressure were an introduction to a stressful life in Canada. Without the warm, caring support of my new husband, his family, relatives and friends, I could not have survived in this period of my life. In 1957, we returned to Japan, where we taught and practiced. In 1962, we came back to Canada with two young sons.

Ever since, I have devoted my life to my profession of social work. I worked in clinical and educational settings, and found my work challenging and rewarding. The more I learned about Canada — the history, the dynamics, growth of socio-cultural milieu — my sense of identity as a Canadian became stronger. Naturally, learning about Canada included some dark spots in its history, such as internment of Canadians of Japanese decent, and head tax on Chinese immigrants. Still, however, Canadian social policies were, and still are, progressive and humane. Multiculturalism, proclaimed by Trudeau as a new national goal for Canada, was enthusiastically welcomed by many, but was also met by resistance, spoken and unspoken, and is taking a long time to implement fully to affect the day to day life of immigrants.

To my dismay, I was constantly witnessing unqualified people such as care-taking staff, actors/interpreters, in complex neurological procedures, and in schools even children used as interpreters for parents and teachers. A particular concern was that small minority groups, such as the Japanese-speaking community, were not receiving help, in spite of the fact that they were taxpayers. This situation led me to early retirement from the Toronto Board of Education to devote the next ten years of my life to establishing the Japanese family services, where non-English speaking Japanese immigrants and residents could receive professional services in their own language.

The hardest part of this task was to influence a change of perception in the mainstream community to Japanese immigrants and residents, and also to empower those people to recognize their right to use help in time of need. Perhaps the hardest and the most frustrating part of this process was working with the funding agencies. My role as advocate for Japanese Family Services has borne fruit in the continuing services it provides to the community, in spite of financial struggle.

In reflection, I’m grateful to Canada for giving me a challenging and fulfilling life. I have become a proud Canadian. Canada is my home, and I’m proud to be a member of the Canadian family.

Setsuko Thurlow is a speaker for the Historica-Dominion Institute’s "Passages to Canada."

Learn more: Passages to Canada