From Korea to Canada: One family’s incredible journey from hardship to success

From Korea to Canada: One family's incredible journey from hardship to success
WatchOn Connections, we meet a Central Saanich woman whose parents immigrated to Canada from South Korea 47 years ago. But the transition for Linda Lee's parents was not smooth. From living in their car with two babies in the middle of winter to extreme racism in a small Alberta town, they persevered and turned their challenges into victories. April Lawrence reports.

Linda Lee’s parents grew up in Korea and when it came time to choose a suitor her mom fell instantly in love, but there was a problem. The young man she chose had no money and he had lost his family, all but one brother, in the Korean war, something her family considered bad luck.

They got married anyway, but she was banished from her family.

“It was a very difficult time for my parents so my dad said there’s opportunities in a place called Canada,” said Lee who lives in Central Saanich.

So on a -22 C day in November 1972, John and Donna Lee from South Korea arrived in Edmonton with their two babies. They did not speak English, knew no one, and had less than $200 in their pockets.

“The $50 he had that was to set them up in an apartment, he was swindled and it was a scam,” said Lee.

They had already bought a car and it quickly became home to the four of them, in the middle of an Edmonton winter.

“They learned quickly if they could take peoples garbage bags they could stuff the car instead of keeping the car on because they couldn’t afford the gas. It would insulate them from the deep cold that would come very night,” said Lee.

Her dad was working as a mechanical engineer and her mom got a job at a jeans factory. After a month they were able to afford a one-bedroom basement suite in this home and they started to build a life

But then tragedy struck — their youngest child’s twin sister died in her first few months of life. That’s when the family, in their grief, decided to pick up and start fresh in Calgary.

John Lee opened a grocery store and even went to school to become a butcher, but that dream too came to an abrupt end when they were forced to file for bankruptcy.

Not willing to give up, they tried again, buying a gas station in the small town of Black Diamond. Now a quaint tourist town, back then it had fewer than a thousand people, almost all of them white.

“No one would get gas there because it was ‘the Chinaman came into town to take over’. We faced incredible discrimination and racism,” said Lee.

But her dad was not going to be defeated

“Let’s get them to learn that we put on pants just like them, that we eat maybe our food is slightly different yes and we have slightly different shaped eyes Linda but we feel the same feelings we just have to continue to teach them we’re human just like them,” she said.

And it worked. Before they moved in 1998 John Lee was so beloved he was asked to be mayor of Black Diamond, and he’d turned his little gas station into an Esso, which still exists today.

Along with some wise real estate investments, John was able to retire at 55 years old. The couple recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Calgary surrounded by family, including their six grandkids.

Linda Lee is grateful for her parents perseverance fighting through tough times with a smile and a belief that a better life is always just around the corner.

April LawrenceApril Lawrence

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