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Doyenne of Diversity

As U of T’s 31st chancellor, Senator Vivienne Poy will serve as the university’s ceremonial head – and as a unique role model for students

At first glance, you might see only a petite, immaculately groomed woman looking much younger than her 62 years. But make no mistake: she emits focused, intense energy and awesome efficiency. At a time of life when many people are busy shedding responsibilities, Senator Vivienne Poy, a former fashion designer in Toronto’s tony Yorkville district, is eagerly adding more. Beginning July 1, she assumes the post of chancellor of U of T (the university’s ceremonial head) – replacing Hal Jackman, who has served since 1997.

Intriguingly, Poy (MA 1997) is also a student. As she settles into a chair at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel tea room, the first thing she says, with pleasure and pride, is: “I just handed in my thesis yesterday.” Her doctoral thesis in history at U of T focuses on the immigration of generations of Chinese women to Canada. Poy is the first member of a visible minority to become chancellor of U of T. In 1998, she had broken another barrier by becoming Canada’s first senator of Asian descent. Given that Chinese have been living in Canada for a century and a half, she wonders why such representation has taken so long. But she looks firmly to the future rather than dwelling on past grievances. “The alumni are taking diversity very seriously by electing me,” says Poy, who supports the goal of making the university’s faculty and administration as ethnically diverse as its student body. As chancellor, Poy hopes to be a role model for young people, especially those who are visible minorities, and plans to foster open communications with students by scheduling times when the door to her Simcoe Hall office will be open to all.

As ceremonial ambassador, U of T’s chancellor is most visible at convocations, when she or he shakes thousands of graduating students’ hands. The chancellor also welcomes foreign dignitaries to campus and attends more than 100 university events throughout the year, from Spring Reunion to President’s Circle events. Previous distinguished chancellors have included Pauline McGibbon (Ontario’s first female lieutenant-governor, who was chancellor from 1971 to 1974) and former United Nations ambassador George Ignatieff (who held the post from 1980 to 1986). Outgoing chancellor Hal Jackman served as lieutenant-governor from 1991 to 1996 and is president of the Henry N.R. Jackman Foundation. Chancellors are elected for one three-year term and can be re-elected for a second session.

Choosing the chancellor is the task of 36 alumni who form the College of Electors. They spread the word that they are looking for candidates, preferably grads. Their executive board also combs lists of distinguished Canadians – Order of Canada recipients, honorary degree recipients, Who’s Who – to come up with a shortlist. After many highly confidential discussions, they cast votes by secret ballot.

The woman they’ve chosen has already shown an immense capacity for generosity at U of T – and hard work. Poy has served on the university’s Governing Council, won an Arbor Award for her volunteer work and established the Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Thought and Culture at the Faculty of Arts and Science in honour of her deceased parents. “She’s an ideal choice,” says Joseph Rotman, a generous supporter of the business school that bears his name and a Governing Council member. “She brings insight, capability and creativity to the job, and an unwavering dedication to human rights and tolerance.”

As honorary president of the University of Toronto Alumni Association, the chancellor also represents more than 365,000 alumni worldwide. She presides over the association’s annual general meeting, attends regional alumni events, speaks at the annual Arbor Awards ceremony (which recognizes outstanding alumni volunteers and friends of the university) and participates in a host of other alumni events – making her the most direct link between alumni and U of T.

Poy was born into a wealthy Hong Kong family in May 1941, but her start in life was not easy. She was just six months old when Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese and nine months old when her family fled to China. There, they spent the war years as refugees, often on the move and selling her mother’s jewels in order to live. “Don’t worry,” her father told her mother, “after the war, I’ll buy you more.” He kept his promise.

Poy, who was sickly as a preschooler, has vivid memories of those years. As a child of two, she remembers climbing atop the cargo on a truck and holding on for dear life. She also remembers being carsick and throwing up hard-boiled eggs, which her family always ate while travelling. “It has taken me 50 years to get over my phobia of hard boiled eggs,” she says.

When they returned to Hong Kong after the war, their ancestral home was still standing. But Hong Kong was devastated; there were food shortages, rationing, little money and few schools. At an early age, Poy absorbed some harsh truths: “You can never count on what you think you have, because it can all disappear,” she says. “But your own knowledge and hard work – nobody can take that away from you.”

In postwar Hong Kong, Poy’s father was the rice controller, a highly contentious position that involved importing and overseeing fair distribution of residents’ staple food. But Richard Charles Lee, who was also a civil engineer, belonged to no political party. “He worked well with everyone,” recalls Poy. As a loving memoir of her father, Poy has written and self-published Building Bridges: The Life & Times of Richard Charles Lee, Hong Kong 1905-1983 – in both English and Chinese.

In 1959, after three years in a private girls’ school in England, Poy came to Canada and enrolled at McGill University in Montreal to study history. That’s where she met Neville Poy, who was in his final year of medicine at McGill. (Neville’s younger sister is Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson.) They were married shortly after she graduated, when she was 21 and he was 27. At her convocation, Vivienne’s father asked her why she had achieved only honours and not first class honours. To this day, Vivienne is driven by his high expectations. “I keep feeling he’s there watching me,” she says, “making sure I do the right thing.”

The accomplishment she’s most proud of in her life? Her close-knit family: three sons – Ashley, 37, Justin, 33, and Carter, 29 – three grandchildren and her husband of more than 40 years. Hobbies? She enjoys the solitude of gardening at the family’s Muskoka cottage and swimming there three times a day. She also loves travelling: in the midst of a blustery Toronto winter, when many were fleeing to warm latitudes, Poy and her husband took a two-week Antarctic cruise, during which she eagerly learned how to walk on ice using cleats. “I want to do things like that before I get too old,” she says.

Poy glances at her watch. Our hour is up. Her husband is picking her up in two minutes. Neither one of us has touched the tiny tea sandwiches. “Maybe you could take them home?” she suggests pragmatically.
And she’s off.

Susan Lawrence (BEd 1972) is a Toronto editor and writer.

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