A Champion for the Underdog

By Valarie Hill

Jade Campbell had the unique distinction of being the first Chinese baby born in Galt, a distinction that remains a source of pride for her family, as it symbolized the Seto family's growing root base in Canada.

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Jade Campbell as a little girl. Family photo

"At first, they only allowed so many Chinese to come over," said her brother, Wally Seto. "I was born in China. (My brother) Paul and I were the first Chinese boys to come here."

Canada had strict rules about Chinese immigration, said daughter Kailin Campbell, noting the most damaging was the exclusion law which forbade wives from joining their husbands. Nevertheless, her great grandfather, a successful merchant in China, sought new opportunities to take care of his growing family in China and came to Manitoba to work on the railroad. "The biggest Chinatown was in Winnipeg," Wally said.

As railroad work eventually dried up, several of the men opened laundries in the city. Wally, rippling with good humour, joked "they can only have so many laundries."

So his grandfather moved on, somehow finding his way to Galt where he established the town's first Chinese laundry.

In 1922 Jade's father George Seto, at only 12 years old, travelled alone from his home in Canton, China to join his father in Galt.

As a teenager, George worked in the laundry but had bigger plans for himself, eventually partnering with a cousin in a Chinese restaurant. In 1951, he opened his own establishment, George's Restaurant and Tavern, which is today operated by the third generation of the Seto family.

Somehow, George found the time to pursue another important milestone in his life: his own family.

George returned to China to marry a woman chosen by his family. The couple had four children, though two died in China and the two survivors immigrated to Canada with George's wife Betty, in the late 1940s.

Once in Cambridge, the couple had two more children, first Jade, then her younger brother Dale. Growing up as the daughter of a restaurant owner, Jade worked whenever she wasn't in school, a work ethnic that stuck throughout her life, though like her father, she had big plans for herself.

"She was a rebel," said Kailin, who understood there were expectations for Chinese girls, mostly about obedience. Jade decided to become a teacher, then thoroughly shocked her family by marrying a Caucasian boy.

"They eloped," said Kailin, describing the subsequent fallout with George. "There was a rift, they didn't speak for decades."

Jade was unwilling to give up on her family. She regularly visited her mother and brothers at the restaurant when her father was away. George eventually came around and forgave her, albeit just a few years before he died at age 92 in 1994.

"It made her very unhappy," said Kailin, who believed her mother understood the risk of alienating George by marrying a non-Chinese, assuming it would all blow over. "I don't think she knew it was going to take so long." The couple later divorced.

After graduating from college, Jade did some substitute teaching. But in 1975, she was hired at Cambridge Memorial Hospital, launching what would become a 35-year career.

Jade started on switchboard, moved to the records department and by the mid-1980s, she was a patient records technician. In 1980, Jade became an indefatigable rep for the Service Employees International Union, which represented about 400 clerical and service staff, as well as registered practical nurses at the hospital. In this task, Jade was fearless, though nonadversarial.

"She had a strong sense of justice, helping the underdog right the wrong," said longtime friend Sherry Carpenter. "She'd take up the cause if somebody needed something."

Sherry added that her friend had a special gift for getting her way, without humiliating or belittling the person she was negotiating with. Even after she was able to retire, Jade refused.

"As long as there was work to be done, she would be there," said Sherry. "She was passionate about what she did."

This level devotion also played out in her home life. Nothing was too much work for her children Kailin and son, former Olympic speed skater Derrick Campbell.

Jade was at her son's side when he competed in Japan, in Europe and across Canada, even though she really didn't like to travel, said Kailin.

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Jade Campbell had a great love for babies. Family Photo

 Such support and encouragement paid off. In 1998, Derrick became the first Waterloo Region resident to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

As much as she supported her children's every wish, Jade didn't put up with any nonsense. "She swung a big stick," said Kailin, metaphorically describing her mother's strict parenting style.

Sherry recalls "she made them accountable. She set high standards."

Kailin also remembers her mother as "one of the funniest people I've met in my life" and a skilled craftswoman, both with power tools and a crochet hook.

"And she loved babies," said Kailin who thought of her mother as the anchor of the family, the one who held everyone together, including aunts, uncles and a myriad of cousins. "She had a strong family commitment." Their house usually had either the kids' friends or a family member living with them.

"There was always room for one more," said Kailin.

Jade was also an ardent volunteer, helping with food drives, with skating and soccer clubs and she served on the Ontario Health Coalition, a grassroots organization representing more than 400 communities around the province.

Sherry concluded "she was just a very special person." 

To read more about Jane Campbell, visit our post on October 7, 2013: In Memoriam Jade Campbell 1951-2013

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