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Then & Now: Sudbury the first city in Canada to elect Chinese-Canadian mayor

Sudbury is a city of firsts.
160721_Peter_WongSized
Peter Wong.

Sudbury is a city of firsts. It was the first in Canada to install parking meters in 1940; the first to have a private television station (CKSO-TV) in 1953; and the city where the Franco-Ontario flag was raised for the first time in front of the University of Sudbury in 1975.

It was also the first large city to elect a Chinese-Canadian mayor.

Peter Wong was elected in 1982 when the country’s white male establishment was just beginning to open the doors of power to visible minorities and women.

Canadians of Asian heritage had been elected in smaller communities before Wong. This include Peter Wing, mayor of Kamloops, B.C., in the late 1960s. In 1966, its population, before amalgamation of smaller communities was under 11,000 and it grew to 26,000 by 1971.

The civil servant turned politician played a guiding role as Sudbury transformed itself from a mining town to a tourist destination and regional centre for post-secondary education, health care, and government services.

Historian C.M. Wallace credits Wong and Tom Davies, regional chair from 1981 to 1997, for bringing stability to municipal government which aided Sudbury’s economic recovery and reinvention during a difficult time in the city's history.*

In 1991, Wong's last year as mayor, Sudbury was named one of the 10 best places in Canada to live by Chatelaine magazine. The city finished the year with no debt and a surplus of $939,000 on an expenditure of $63.28 million.**

Wong's daughter, Nancy, says, “My Dad was a civil engineer by profession and enjoyed that work for many years. I think his training as an engineer did help him in his political career.

“The logical thinking of an engineer was an asset. However, I believe his natural warmth and friendliness and ability to communicate well also helped him have a successful political career.

“(But) the mud-slinging of municipal politics was tough (for him) as he always worked to build consensus by collaborating,” she says.

Narasim Katary, the long-range planner for the former Regional Municipality of Sudbury and a co-founder of Sudbury 2001, a think tank for economic development, remembers Wong understood the need for sustainable development.

"On several occasions he spoke in favour of breaking away from excessive dependence on the mining industry. He saw the mining industry as a base on which to build better and diversify rather than as the base to depend upon as the saviour of the city," says Katary.

"He wholeheartedly endorsed the community initiative under Sudbury 2001. He was very much an active participant during the 'Golden Age of Sudbury from late 1973 through 1985.”

Born in Saskatchewan, Wong attended the University of Denver and graduated in 1954. He worked for the Ontario Department of Highways and spent two years working in Thailand before accepting a job with Sudbury's municipal public works department in 1969.

He became senior engineer, but in 1982 he lost his job when Mayor Maurice Lamoureux cut 19 jobs to save $500,000 at city hall.

Unemployed, he ran for mayor, defeating Lamoureux in the municipal election that fall.

Wong was mayor when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the city to open Science North in 1984.

He welcomed the world to Sudbury when it hosted the World Junior Championships in 1988. In 1993, he had the opportunity to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales during their visit.

When the community of Sudbury, Mass., celebrated its 100th birthday in August 1989, Wong and his wife, Lynn, were special guests.

After three terms as mayor, Wong was defeated in the 1991 municipal election by a more colourful politician and a former mayor, Jim Gordon.

He continued to work for Sudbury serving on several municipal and provincial boards and commissions. He was chair of the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, chair of United Way, and a member of the Sudbury Regional Hospital board.

Wong returned to municipal politics in 1997 as the first elected chair of the Regional Municipality of Sudbury. Previously the chair was elected by members of regional council.

His time as regional chair was cut short when he suffered a fatal heart attack while attending the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities in Regina, Sask. Wong died June 8, 1998 at the age of 66.

Following Wong's death, councillor Doug Craig served as interim chair until Frank Mazzuca, the former mayor of Capreol, was elected chair in a byelection.

Nickel Belt MP Ray Bonin paid tribute to Wong in the House of Commons June 10, 1998. 

"Mr. Wong held the distinction of being the first elected chairman of my region. This position was the culmination of a long and successful career of public service as a school board trustee and mayor of the City of Sudbury.  

"In his public life, Mr. Wong possessed a leadership style that cultivated the trust, loyalty and respect of his peers and constituents. Everyone who met and worked with Peter knew they were dealing with a man true to his principles and a man unselfishly committed to his community. 

"In his work with various community organizations, he set a benchmark that few can aspire to attain. He will be missed. On behalf of the people of Nickel Belt and the members of the House, I offer our sincere condolences to the Wong family, his wife Lynn, daughter Nancy and son Eric."***

Wong is remembered as one of the founders of Action Sudbury-Citizens Against Impaired Driving in 1984. He was chair of Action Sudbury until 1998. He was also founding president of Ontario Community Council on Impaired Driving (OCCID).

Sudbury's Blueberry Festival, first held in 1986, was Wong's passion.

"He used to say blueberries were the best above ground natural resource,” says John Lindsay, who has been involved in the festival since the beginning.

"Peter was involved right up until his untimely death. He was very instrumental in fundraising for the event and presided at every meeting of the Blueberry Festival committee."

Among his many accomplishments, Wong played second for the Northern Ontario team at the 1973 Macdonald Brier in Edmonton on a team skipped by Don Harry. He was inducted into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame posthumously in 1999.

Lynn Wong now lives with her daughter in Mississauga, but for many years after her husband's death, she continued his work with Action Sudbury, Ontario Community Council on Impaired Driving, the Blueberry Festival, Sudbury Food Bank, and Childhood Enface, a program that provides a school breakfast, lunch and snack program children in need. 

Daughter Nancy, who pursued a career in public service with the Ontario government, said, "Dad was very proud he was the first Chinese-Canadian mayor in Canada and first elected regional chair.

"He was most proud of his community work and making a difference for the residents of Sudbury. I think politics was really a means for him to engage with the citizens.

"He was a people-person and enjoyed meeting people at cultural and community events.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Join her for a short tour of historic downtown Sudbury, Saturday, July 17 as part of the Downtown Jazzed Up events. Meet at the corner of Elm and Durham streets at noon.  Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

* Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital, edited by C.M. Wallace and Ashley Thomson, Dundurn Press, 1993

** Sudbury Star, May 20, 1992

*** Hansard, June 10, 1998