Guest Commentary

Senator Yonah Martin

They Saved Our Lives

When I was young my mother taught us a Korean folk song, Spring In My Hometown. My father was from a town in North Korea and fled to freedom during the Korean War. The song lyrics proclaim, “I miss my blossoming home”, yet my parents never returned to Korea.

They told us as children that we owed a debt of gratitude to Canadian veterans who saved our family and millions of others in the Korean War. I would not be here if not for them. We owe our lives to these soldiers, sailors and air crew.

After the Korean War broke out in 1950 my father’s family fled their home province, Pyong An. Relatives scattered to avoid the hostilities. My father then was only 16, and left his mother who’d stayed behind to care for his eldest sister who was nine months pregnant.

My parents rarely discussed the war. We were never told of their experiences. Did they walk to freedom? Were they helped by Allied soldiers? We don’t know. They grabbed all their worldly goods wrapped in botaris, sacks created by tying large scarves around the items to be carried. When we immigrated to Canada from Seoul in 1972 I carried my own small botari.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians perished in the Korean War. Our community has many painful stories from that era. Whole families begged for food; the bodies of the dead were left in piles; there were whispered accounts of target shootings in the forests. My father was an unsentimental man of few words. We knew the pain he’d experienced in the war.

My father never missed a day of work. He did not golf or take up hobbies or spend money on himself, as other fathers did. If a loaf of bread had mould, Father would cut off the green crust and eat the good parts. We joked that Father could survive eating rocks.

My father passed away in 2007 without ever seeing the family members he’d left behind in North Korea. I may have family in that long-suffering country, but will never be certain. We don’t know who survived the war.

As a former high school English and social studies teacher, I noticed the Korean War was often absent from the history curriculum. They call it the “forgotten war”. As a senator I began drafting a bill in 2010 which later passed into law in 2013 that designates each July 27 as Korean War Veterans Day, the anniversary of the 1953 armistice. We must never forget these Canadians.

I often meet Korean War veterans at commemorative events. I also visit them in long-term care homes. We share smiles, and tears. There were no winners in that terrible war, but I am grateful to these veterans for their service. They are disappearing now; each week I hear of another death, and make plans to attend another funeral.

Today my mother is in care. She has Alzheimer’s. Even with her deteriorating memory, when I speak about the Korean War veterans, her eyes instantly well with tears. “Oh my goodness, I’m so grateful the soldiers came,” she says. Sometimes we walk down the corridor of the personal care home, holding hands, and we quietly sing that folk song she taught us as children:

I miss my blooming home, village of mountain valley;
Peach blossoms, apricots, baby azaleas.

Colourful arena with many beautiful flowers;
I long for the days when I got to play there.

Village of flowers, village of birds, my old hometown;
Such sweet wind coming from southern green field.

Leaves of willow trees danced near the creek;
I long for the days when I got to play there.

(Editor’s note: the author is a Conservative senator from British Columbia, and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)

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