Canada 21/150: Betty Lynn

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By Jennifer Lynn with Robert Lynn

How did I get here? That very question arose for me, as I took to the stage, on November 18, 2014 at the Canadian Museum of Nature, to receive the CRRF's Award of Excellence for the B.O.L.D. (Broadening Opportunity through Leadership Diversity) program. While I would share my "child of an immigrant family" story that day, centered on my grandfather, there was another story to be told: one that spoke to what it means to be Canadian and what Canadian citizenship entails.

That story is Betty's story, the heartening lived experience about love, war and hope – an immigrant story that has shaped four generations of Lynns and embodies the Canadian values and immigrant qualities of harmony, generosity, hard work and family.

Betty Lynn is our paternal eldest Aunt, born in Woodstock, Ontario, the 92-year-old current matriarch of our family, the backbone of the Lynn Family, and the adopted Aunt by many beneficiaries and admirers of her kindness, wisdom and resilience. Reserved and observant, Aunt Betty's incredible courage, kindness and tenacity, touched and benefits generations of our family and so many others, particularly immigrant women and families.

This is the first time Betty's story is being told outside of our immediate family. It all begins with our grandfather, John Lynn, who in his twenties makes his maiden voyage from Canton, China to Canada, landing in Victoria, British Columbia in 1911. In search of a better life, he joins the waves of Chinese immigrants who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway for meager wages and under poor living conditions. He is recognized on the Monument to the Chinese Railway Workers, located in Toronto, at the base of the CN Tower. John Lynn pays the substantial head tax of a staggering $500 (the equivalent of 2 years of wages) to bring his wife Hew Shee Lynn to Canada – "Gum San," the Golden Mountain as it was called – and begins a successful life-long career as a restauranteur in various southern Ontario towns. They have four daughters and one son born in Canada, with Betty Lynn being the eldest child.

At age 8, Betty goes with the entire family on a heritage trip to China during the Great Depression. When World War II breaks out, she and two younger sisters are separated from family both in China and their parents and siblings (Norman and Mabel) back in Canada. All travel ceased or was hampered with the war. No one could have anticipated that Betty and her sisters, Margaret (age 6) and Verna (age 2) would be stranded in China for 12 years from 1935-1947. There is no way out, no way back to Canada.

"We just kept running from village to village to keep ahead of any danger. There was no way out, no way back to Canada."
Verna (age 2), Margaret (age 6), Betty (age 8) | Rescued 1947 and awaiting return to Canada (ages 24, 22, 18)

Betty takes responsibility for keeping her sisters safe and alive, constantly running from village to village to keep ahead of any danger. Living on leaves and finding ways to earn a bowl of rice husk, she labours making straw hats, doing laundry, working the assembly line at an incense factory. "Our parents didn't know if we were still alive. Yet they never gave up looking for us. They engaged the Canadian government in the search".

Although some traditional Chinese parents value boys, more than girls, John and Hew Shee never gave up on their three young girls. That search would last a dozen years across the Pacific, all made more difficult by the war. Communications was sparse at best and unreliable. There was limited to no information or leads to find the lost Canadian girls even with the Canadian government's assistance.

In 1946, a breakthrough happens. While working at a Canton factory, Betty is approached during several visits by Reverend Verent John Russell Mills, who speaks perfect Cantonese, even though he is Caucasian. Wary and cautious, in order to protect herself and her sisters, she says little. "You had to be careful. You didn't know who you could trust." When he shows her a photo of her father, she realizes Manitoba-raised Revered Mills is genuinely there to help reunite them with the family home in Canada. Finally rescued!

A government letter is sent to Betty's father requiring $2,500 to repatriate the three daughters to Canada, covering the cost to furnish relief until transportation is available and to cover expenses of the transportation to Canada and enroute expenses. While no small task and a significant sum to turn around quickly, the family comes up with the $2,500 in less than three weeks. It will take over 8 months before the 3 girls, now young women, leave China on January 5, 1947 for the long trip home to Canada.

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John and Hew Shee Lynn | 1947: First generation of Canadian-born Lynns reunited

Aboard the S.S. General Gordon, Betty and her sisters return to Canada arriving at Toronto’s Union Station on February 2, 1947, at the height of the winter season. "It just happened to be my birthday that day. I didn't even know. My father had to remind me".

Imagine not recognizing your parents and they don't recognize you either after a 12-year absence.  Reintegration back into Canada was not easy for Betty and her sisters. They had lost most of their English language and had missed out on the prime school years. 

Betty forged on, getting a job at the John Forsyth Shirt Factory in Kitchener. Over her more than 30 years with the company, she taught in her home all the Chinese women, mostly newly arrived immigrants, to sew and then helped them to secure jobs at the factory. She became essentially the trainer, translator, spokesperson and advocate for these women and their families. To this day, many of her co-workers and their children attribute their family's well-being and success to Aunt Betty's help and kindness. She simultaneously worked in the family's Kitchener restaurant and Toronto boarding house, adding up to regular 18 to 20 hour days. The restaurant also served as a "community hub" for those seeking a hot meal, advice on settling in Canada, and dealing with all the challenges of beginning anew.

As proud Canadians, every July 1st for more than five decades the Lynn Family, numbering 50 plus strong, celebrate this great country and gather at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery to pay respects to our ancestors with a traditional "Hung San" ceremony.  

One of the greatest moments for Aunt Betty (and the extended Lynn family) was to receive, on behalf of her long-deceased parents, brother Norman and sister Verna, the 2006 apology from the Government of Canada for the Chinese Head Tax.  It affirmed her pride in Canada and the values, integrity and equity embodied in being Canadian.

Annual Lynn Family tradition: "Hung San" and Canada Day celebration | 2006 apology from the Government of Canada for the Chinese Head Tax

"I am proud and grateful to be Canadian. As a Canadian citizen, I always try to help others because I know how hard it can be to have nothing and to start all over again. I got a second chance, so I want to give back to others and to Canada." | "Never give up hope. If I did, I would not be here, nor my sisters. You just have to keep believing."


Aunt Betty has instilled in us, through her wise words and more so her actions, the virtues of hard work, loyalty, respect, unconditional love, hope and gratitude. How she has lived her life, always to its fullest, rising above the darkness, brings inspiration and hope daily.

I, along with my five siblings, grew up as inner-city kids in the City of Kitchener and as one of just a handful of Chinese families growing up in the predominately euro-centric community. As I reflect upon my earliest recollection of "being treated as different" experiencing racism and discrimination, I turned that awareness of marginalization into words, advocacy and calls to action – be it as a young girl at the podium of a provincial public school speaking competition, to being the first "woman of colour" to chair the Board of the United Way Toronto, and currently through the B.O.L.D. program, accelerating a new paradigm of leadership diversity in executive positions in all sectors and industries.

I got here because of all the firsts paved by Aunt Betty – for us to emulate and to keep us on track.

The youngest (fourth) generation of Lynns is already following in the footsteps of Aunt Betty, learning to carry the torch – in civic engagement with Matthew Lynn selected to serve as a Queens Park page; and in social justice and aid with Arielle Lynn volunteering with Free The Children/Me to We in the Ecuador Amazon Forest.

Aunt Betty's most recent words to her great-nephew: "When you become Prime Minister of Canada, I want you to come to my gravesite and tell me you are the Prime Minister".

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March 1946: Notice of Proposed Repatriation | April 1946: Repatriation payment receipt of $2,500  

Human Rights and freedom 2


B.O.L.D. 2015 Program

CBC Books: The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

Coming To Gum San - the story of Chinese Canadians

Chinese Canadian History

Diversity and inclusion strategy is a good business imperative

Prime Minister Harper offers full apology for the Chinese Head Tax

Images courtesy of the Lynn Family
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