Written by Karl Lee
The Korean Canadian Women’s Association (KCWA) is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1985. Its aim it to provide social services for people of all ages, regardless of gender and ethnicity. On average, the KWCA delivers around 30,000 service encounters per year and in addition offers numerous classes, workshops and lectures on subjects like English-language training and job search techniques. For over 25 years, the KCWA has played a vital city building role as it has worked to improve the quality of life of all Torontonians.
This important association would have not been established without the dedication and commitment of some Korean women, along with a few timely and critical events. When the Women’s Club within the Korean Canadian Cultural Association was dismissed in 1984, some of its members, including Ms Sunghak Choia and Ms Sang-on Lee, vowed to continue its work. Despite some initial differences, plans were soon in motion for a new organization that would represent the voice of Korean women in Toronto.
At this moment, an opportunity arrived to attend the farewell tribute dinner for William Davis, former Premier of Ontario. Women’s groups from various sectors had been invited, and although the Korean community still had no official women’s organization, the event was advertised in the Korean Times newspaper. Ms Choi and her associates decided to attend, taking up a table, and made contacts with other women’s groups. This event served as motivation to get organized and the attendants of this event would later become the founders of the KCWA.
Subsequently, the group was invited to attend other major events, and to participate in other movements and organizations, including The Coalition for Visible Minority Women in Ontario and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. As they joined with other women across cultural communities, the attendants renewed their determination to become a part of these important initiatives.
The first major meeting to start the KCWA was held at Ms Choi’s house. It was publicly advertised in local Korean newspapers to ensure that women from a wide range of fields would attend. Forty people arrived for this initial meeting, and the discussion began on how to formally begin a Korean women’s association. Temporary appointments were made to various positions, most notably with Ms Sang-on Lee becoming the Chair, Ms Sunghak Choi the Co-Chair and Ms Agatha Eom as General Affairs Secretary. Following this meeting, the committee members worked tirelessly to create the structure of an official organization, drafting and reviewing its mandate. Ms Mirae Cho, a reporter for the Korea Times, kept the public up to date on these events. The organizers were also fortunate enough to receive assistance from many others, including Rev. Kyungja and Prof. Samyeol Noh — both important figures in the community — who gave important advice on running the organization. Henry Chung, a federal government employee, helped the committee get through a grant application process and receive their very first source of government funding.
On July 11, 1985, the inaugural general meeting of the Korean Canadian Women’s Association was held at the Korean Canadian Cultural Association, where Ms Sunghak Choi was elected the President, Ms Jungsook Jang the Vice President and Ms Sang-on Lee as Chair of the Board of Directors. Its first social event in February of 1986 attracted over 200 people, and hinted at the success that was soon to come.
Due to a lack of resources, the KCWA did not have an office at first, or even a phone line. Thus the founding members used their own phones and met on a regular basis, as volunteers, to handle their tasks and assignments. After posting an advertisement in a local newspaper, they soon found their first office space in Earl Warren Travel and Tours, located at 794 Bathurst Street, just north of Bloor Street. Thereafter, the KCWA would move several times in order to accommodate its growing size and services. They moved to their current location at 27 Madison Avenue, in the Bloor and Spadina area, in 1998.
Since the 1960s, Korean churches and other organizations have helped newcomers settle in Toronto. Following in their footsteps, the KCWA has contributed to this important process and actively helped Korean immigrants, especially Korean women, adjust to their new societies. It has now become one of the leading organizations in the local community, hiring non-Korean employees and preparing documents in Korean and English. Men now also serve on its board of directors.
While maintaining the high quality of services available, the KCWA has an ambition to further the range of their work and continue to make government services available to all those who need them. The KCWA has improved the life of many Torontonians, all the while shaping and bearing witness to a social history that is vital to understanding the growth and development of Toronto today.
Interview with Ms. Song-hak Choi
Interview with Ms. Younglee Ha
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.