Staying On: Korean Heritage in Toronto


Written by Tyson Brown

In 2013, the Korean community of Toronto will celebrate a 50-year presence in the city. Since the 1960s, when the first Koreans arrived to study at the University of Toronto, the community has grown to become one of the city’s largest cultural groups. The story behind the migration of Koreans to Toronto involves the ancient history of the Korean Peninsula, global conflict in the Pacific Ocean, colonization, imperialism, political change and foreign missionaries.

Koreatown storefronts on Bloor Street at Christie Street. MHSO Collection, KOR-200782

Until the mid-19th century, the Korean Peninsula was mainly influenced by its ancient monarchies and indigenous religion. The geo-political character of the region then changed drastically under the influence of global power struggles. Centuries of resistance to foreign influence came to end as the Opium Wars (1839-1860) and the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) opened up the region to diplomatic relations with outsiders. During this period, members from the Maritime Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, under the direction of the British government, set up the first Christian missions in Korea. A crucial stage was thus set for the eventual migration of Koreans to Canada.

The first half of the 20th-century, in particular, was a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty for the Korean people. The Japanese occupation (1910-1945) ended the monarchy, and was followed by two World Wars and the Cold War, in general, and the Korean War and Vietnam War, in particular. In the same period, Canadian Presbyterian Missionaries became important sources of stability, protection, and spiritual comfort, let alone conduits for new technologies, medical aid, and emigration.

After World War II, the first English-speaking Korean Church leaders emerged from the growing Korean Christian churches. A Korean dipmotic mission was opened in Ottawa in 1963. Shortly thereafter, a few young Korean church leaders were sent to Toronto to study theology at the University of Toronto. Taking advantage of recently revised immigration policies, a number of those Korean theology students decided to remain in Canada after they finished their studies. Becoming permanent residents and then Canadian citizens, they were also able to sponsor the immigration of others.

For this initial small group of Koreans in Toronto, St. Luke’s United Church on Sherbourne and Carlton streets became a crucial hub where networks of the original Korean community  were established. The importance of religious centres to the history of Koreans in Toronto is further highlighted in the story of the Alpha Korean United Church.

After the initial wave of Korean migrants to Toronto, other developments would lead to the gradual increase of this community. While the Canadian government worked to bring skilled workers from Korea, the Korean government encouraged emigration. As a result, Koreans with significant education and business experience applied for settlement in Canada. At the same time the Korean Student Movement, Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, the presence of the American military in the region and conflict between activists and government combined to create a second wave of Korean migration to cities like Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s.

First-wave Koreans played an important role welcoming and settling subsequent newcomers, with Korean churches, in particular, providing essential networks of support for the growing community. Torontonians of Korean origin actively engaged with Korean politics, and organized conferences here dealing with acculturation to Canadian society and about how to best contribute to its growing multicultural fabric.

In the 1970s, newspapers were established, cultural events were organized and the growing Korean population in Toronto became increasingly visible. Along Bloor Street from Spadina Avenue to Christie Street there gradually developed a cluster of Korean businesses, settlement services, restaurants and churches. This area had already had a history of diversity, with migrants from the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America calling it home. For the Korean community, this neighbourhood’s close proximity to the University of Toronto, where some of the first Koreans in the city had attended school, made it a natural choice as the “Koreatown” of Toronto. In this area were located the Alpha Korean United Church, the YMCA settlement services for Koreans, the Korean collection of literature at Palmerston Library, the Korean Seniors Citizens Center and the Korean Canadian Woman’s Association. The latter organization provides a primary example of how Torontonians of Korean origin have responded to the social, cultural and political needs of the broader community to improve the well-being of the entire city.

Today, the Korean population of Toronto continues to grow and is an integral feature of the city’s fabric. In the 50 years since the first Korean theology students arrived through their Canadian missionary channels, the Korean community in Toronto has maintained strong links to Korean culture and has enriched our city. Koreans have indeed secured a place in the historical narrative of Toronto’s emergence as a modern, diverse metropolis.


Joyce Davis, ‘An Anglo-Canadian Look at the Korean Community in Toronto’, OSIE, MHSO Collection
Jung Gun Kim, ‘How Koreans Came to Call Toronto their Home’, Polyphony: Press, Vol. 6, (Multicultural History Society, 1984) pg. 176-180.
Jun Gun Kim, ‘Korean Language Press in Ontario’ Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 4, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1982).
Jung Gun Kim, To God’s Country: Missionaries in Korean and the Beginning of Korean Migration to Canada, (University of Toronto Press, 1982).
Joon Soo Hong, Under the Canadian Sky, (Korea Times Daily, 2000).
‘The Toronto Korean United Church and Toronto Korean Presbyterian Church’, Polyphony: Religion and Ethnocultural Communities, Vol. 1. No. 2, (Summer, 1978).

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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