New Hires

“Pick up your pens”

Ottawa made its reputation as a government town during the Second World War when the public service rose from 6,406 in 1939, to 56,342 in 1945. The government deemed the majority of new positions as temporary, and assigned workers offices in fourteen temporary buildings along Sussex and Wellington streets. At war’s end, the government decided that workers once needed to provide for the war effort were now needed to plan for the post-war economy. Most temporary positions were designated permanent. The last temporary building was demolished in 2012.

Jessie Cheng came from Nanaimo, B.C. to work in Ottawa, circa. 1940s. (Courtesy of Judy Chang)

The wartime boom in the public service brought an influx of young Chinese to Ottawa from around the country. Many of the second generation born to Chinese immigrants found summer jobs in the government. Young women upon graduation from high school often signed up for stenography courses, knowing that clerical jobs were in demand. So desperately did federal departments need lower-grade jobs filled that the public service sometimes ignored a regulation dating from 1921 that women resign their positions upon marriage, a restriction not officially removed until 1955.

Stenographers’ entry exam, early 1940s. L to R: Lillian Fong Johnston, unknown, Louise Fong Johnston, Margaret Joe, Mary Wong, Helen Kealey, Doris Yuen. (Courtesy of Linda Hum)

Doris (née Fong Johnston) Soong recalled that her sisters Lillian and Louise, who worked as stenographers in the government, told her that they could readily find her a similar position. However, Doris preferred to stay in Perth to help their widowed mother run Harry’s Café. “My sisters wanted to keep their good jobs in the government, because they were permanent jobs with good benefits, like health insurance,” said Doris. “But they still came home on the weekends to work at the café.”

When Lillian and Louise first moved to Ottawa, they stayed at the YWCA. They had difficulty finding an apartment; landlords turned them away when they learned they were Chinese. Finally, a Jewish landlord was happy to have them as tenants.

Hin Lew speaks about wartime, schooling and work 

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Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong



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