As the first senate of a Korean descendant, Yonah Martin has been a prominent figure in the Korean Canadian community with her dedicated service. Her speeches have always touched our hearts and motivated us to follow her footsteps to become the next leaders in our community. We proudly present this interview, in which you will not only learn more about the pathways Yonah has taken, but also be touched by her caring and loving personality.
Please tell us about your role model(s) growing up in Vancouver.
Naturally I looked up to my parents for guidance. However, in corners of life where my parents were not able to guide me, my church was the place where some of the older Koreans, young adults five to seven years older than me, became my role models. I try to be that role model for the younger generation. Having certain people to look up to and to connect yourself with is an invaluable asset in life. Your parents cannot always have the best ideas for all aspects of life. One person that I have set as my life-long role model is Michael Hwang, the Principal lawyer of Amicus Lawyers who is about five years older than me. I admire Michael so much because he has always served the community. By observing his active participation and wonderful volunteerism to the community, I learned to become a role model for others as he was to me. He served by example and also simultaneously taught and inspired others to be the same role model figures.
Why did you decide to be a teacher?
Ever since I was a little girl, as far as I can remember, I was always one of the oldest of my family and friends. I was already a first-born to begin with and I was kind of a ‘leader’ in my neighborhood. The kids followed me so I sensed that somehow I had to lead; it naturally led to me volunteering as a Sunday school teacher when I was 15 years old which I am still committed to these days even with my current time constraint.
In all honesty, teaching was something that happened because of my failure in engineering during my first year of university. But in retrospect, it was this failure which led me to what I was destined to do. I only chose engineering for the sake of being a dutiful daughter. My uncle, who was an engineer, had convinced my parents that as an Asian immigrant, I would have to be an engineer in order to be successful in Canada; but my best subjects had always been English and Social Studies, which belonged in humanities. When I switched my major to education, I knew it was exactly what I was supposed to do. Through this failure, I had found exactly what I was looking for; finding myself in the education industry was enlightening and empowering. It surely felt like a God-chosen career. It is for this reason that I always reminded my students to not be discouraged by failure or by something not working out as originally planned. Surely, through hard work, if one door closes, millions of other doors open. We must all realize this fact.
What lesson did you learn during your career as a teacher of 21 years?
It is hard for teachers not to take on the problems of the children at school. These children become your children and you can become very emotionally responsible and involved. Their failures seem like your personal failures. I was just so utterly exhausted early on in my teaching career because I was too focused on the problem of one student that was belligerent and confrontational. I eventually learned from my colleagues to shift the focus on the children that are listening and are there to learn; if you give full attention to a belligerent child, it is exactly what he or she wants because negative attention is still better than no attention. How to manage such stressful situations was the skill that I had to learn to sustain my career as a teacher.
On another note, the fact that I was the only Korean teacher in the school district made me feel this sense of responsibility towards other Korean students in different classes, schools or even school districts. This sense of responsibility, in hindsight, made me understand my goal as a teacher and also led me to politics. Teachers and families in other districts consulted me about their Korean students and their problems. At that point in time, it seemed like more work; however on a higher level, this was the preparatory work for serving the community as a politician.
Please tell us about the transition period from being a teacher to a politician. What was your motivation? Were there any obstacles?
Being in politics was a calling for me. I spent 21 years in teaching with great love and passion; politics was not on my radar of things that I thought I would ever end up doing. I certainly feel now that my career in education was an upbringing for my political career. The catalyst to this change in career originated from my daughter. Up until my daughter was born, I was teaching at the church Sunday school. So in my mind I felt that I was fulfilling my duties to the community. But my daughter, at the age of four, began to ask questions about her own identity. With my limited understanding about identity, I used to believe that her being Canadian born, having a Caucasian father and a mother who speaks English without an accent would make her much more Canadian than Korean. When she expressed her desire to connect with the Korean community, I sensed that she felt that she did not belong in the Korean community. It made me think about my own identity; I then learned that in order for me to guide her to become a whole person, I would first have to truly understand and embrace my own Korean identity and moreover, the community. This is what led to me becoming a community activist by forming Corean Canadian Coactive (C3) Society. Founding C3 was very purposeful because I wanted to find a place for my daughter. People always gain tenfold of what they have given in volunteerism; it is a natural and a strange phenomenon. The more I gave through the work of C3, the more was given to myself and my daughter. I found my own sense of identity through her and in serving others. Soon enough, I found myself at the table with different Mayors, Members of Parliament (MP) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) because I naturally became a spokesperson for the Korean community through my involvement in C3. One day when I was asked a question, ‘What about you? Why not you as a potential politician?’ This question from Minister Jason Kenney was what I ended up answering ultimately and surely led me into politics.
During my career transition, my father had just gotten terminally ill and was in the hospital for 16 months out of the 18 months of my candidacy. He died before my first election so it was the worst time in my life to run in an election. Working full time, campaigning full time, and caring for my father full time on top of trying to be a good mother was one of the most challenging things in my life. It is never the right time but somehow in these critical situations, we find our strengths and incredible depth of skills that you require to fulfill our destiny.
What skills are helpful in starting a career in politics?
I actually say that one of the best training that I received to prepare me to become a politician was during my career in teaching. As a teacher, my audience, the students, saw right through me everyday. I had to always be impeccable with my words.
As a teacher, I think I had already possessed communication skills that I needed, but there were also specific things about politics that I learned from the campaign. I was actually involved in the federal campaign directly as a candidate. It was like jumping into the deep end and having to find different tools that I needed to survive. But I realized that was what the other colleagues from all different backgrounds were doing in the Senate as well – using skills gained from their previous careers.
Did you ever face any challenges because of your gender? How did you overcome this challenge?
In my own way, over the four years of being in the political arena, I have struggled with this. Along with being a leader in C3, there is a certain level of male dominance in many industries in the Korean Canadian community. Women wonder if we have to work that much harder or if we have to be that much tougher. These are some of the questions I’m sure other women activists have struggled with in the past. This is a universal question for women. The way I have come to face it in my own career as a Korean Canadian female leader, is by finding what empowers me from within. As a Korean, particularly in the Korean community, the way I have overcome this challenge as a female Korean leader is to speak English to the Korean men that I deal with. This makes me feel that I am on an equal level; I think it’s because I was educated in English back in school where we were all equals, sitting in a roundtable with no hierarchy. We are Canadian as much as we are Korean. Taking the best of both cultures would be ideal, but it is not a realistic approach sometimes. I love the beauty, the strength, and the depth of the Korean culture; however, it is also true that it still has the tendency to portray men as superior figures shown in our history. But as a Canadian woman of a Korean descent, I have been educated that my voice as a woman is equal to anybody else. It is also a mental game. Eleanor Roosevelt has once said that, ‘no one can make me feel inferior without my consent.’ Speaking English empowers me and I use it well. Every single one of us has to find the things that empower us. In Canada, you and I, us as women, we have absolute equality. This is without question. Whatever inferiority that we may feel as women may just be in our heads, but it can certainly feel real and in turn, present real problems. Therefore we must address it. Practice makes perfect. Whatever works for you to feel empowered at such circumstances, find it and practice it.
Your speeches always deeply motivate people as your speech style is very engaging and emotional. What is your secret?
It is a secret that I used to teach my students. The secret is something that my father passed on to me. Robert Frost, an American poet, once said that if there are “no tears in the writer, [then there are] no tears in the reader.’ The figurative voice in your speech or writing is critical; I tell my students that an ESL student can write a simple piece which could have so much more impact on the audience than a person with a Ph.D. If you breathe life into your words, then the pen is the tool in which you channel your emotion. So I always try to speak to the heart. During the door knocking phase of the campaign, in an instant upon meeting people, I had to try to find something in my heart to make a connection to that person. The ability to connect with a larger audience or one person is not so different. When you get as personal as you can be with complete honesty, it becomes most powerful. Others will feel it. That is why Korean drama is so popular.
Based on your political career, what are some of the qualities that a leader must have in our generation/our version?
It’s not about emulating others’ traits because we all possess unique leadership qualities. Every single one of us possesses the strength and quality but they need to be found and refined. They can be found through experiences and through inspiration just like my daughter’s question about her identity. Leadership is just a clear sense of self; it begins there. From there, you need vision and when you believe in it, others will see it too.
I always equate leadership with service. Like a servant leader. Jesus and other great leaders demonstrated it well. But without the love of yourself, you can only give what you possess inside. You have to communicate, you have to bring others along, and you have to share with a good sense of humor.
If possible, what would be the one thing that you would like to accomplish for the Korean Canadian communities in Canada during your term as a Senator?
I am one person and I believe that each of us has a role in terms of what we do for the community. I would also love for Korean Canadians to just dream the happiest dreams doing whatever they desire with their lives, in whatever careers. I just want to encourage them to simply follow their hearts. I do not want the kids to feel the kind of boxed-in pressure that I grew up feeling. It would be so much nicer for my daughter, your children and your grandchildren to pursue their dreams that are realized in ways without the kinds of pressure that Koreans get naturally. I would love to see our Korean Canadians take flight in creative directions. I would love to see Korean Canadians pursue whatever it is that they seek and realize that there are no boundaries.
If any, what goals and dreams do you still want to pursue?
There is a group of people that I have come to love with my whole heart; the Veterans of the Korean War. As the quote goes, “they gave up [their] own lives so that the others may live.” That’s what Canadians and others did for Korea. My parents’ and your grandparents’ adolescence were preserved because of the veterans’ presence during the war. At that point in time, nobody had even heard of Korea. I know a medical doctor, who is currently 91, whose third son was just born when he left to fight for Korea. He too, had daily responsibilities and family ties, just as strong as ours. Still, he left Canada because somehow he felt that it was his call of duty. Every month, about 500 of these wonderful people are dying. There are about 8000 of them left in Canada and I need to teach the younger Korean generation that the Korea we know today is only here because of what the veterans did for us.
About Yonah Martin:
Yonah Martin is a Conservative Senator from British Columbia. She was appointed by Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and is the first Canadian of Korean descent to hold federal public office. Prior to her Senate appointment, she has been a professional educator for twenty-one years. She graduated from the University of British Columbia and taught English and Drama at W.J. Mouat Secondary School in Abbotsford, BC and several other schools in Coquitlam and Burnaby. She has also earned Master of Education degree in 1996.
She co-founded a non-profit organization, the Corean Canadian Coactive (C3) Society and serves on several other boards and committees, including the Mulicultural Advisory Council of BC. She is an alumna and honorary patron of the St. Patrick Regional Secondary School Concert and Chamber Choirs, and has been part of the organizing committee for the annual Korean Heritage Day Festival since 2003. In recognition of her community service in the Tri-Cities area, Martin was awarded the 2004 Spirit of Community Award for Cultural Harmony. She was also awarded the Order of Civil Merit Moran Medal on October 9, 2009 by the Republic of Korea for National Development in the enhancement of the rights of overseas Koreans.
Interview Date : January 30, 2011
Interviewers: Chris Lee, Alice Kim, Stella Chun, Brian Kang, Sierra Lee
Photographer: Ian Chae
Editors: Chris Lee, Phil Kim
The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of KCLDC's opinion.
Did you like the interview? We would like to know how we are doing!
"Follow The Leaders" project is an initiative that KCLDC team has recently taken to deliver inspirational stories of successful Korean leaders in North America. In order for us to deliver the best message, we'd like to hear how we are doing. Please take a few minutes to fill out the feedback form for us to grow! Thank you for your time!
Please fill out "Follow The Leaders" Project Feedback Form
Interested in following more leaders and getting inspired? Join us today for this exciting project!