Remembering Milton Wong:
a deep reflection of a life well-lived

Milton Wong, 1939–2011

Milton Wong, 1939–2011
Photo United Way of Lower Mainland, Flickr

Milton Wong died on Dec. 31, 2011 at the age of 72. The story of the man from humble beginnings who went on to become a renowned businessman and celebrated philanthropist has swept through Vancouver. After all, he was one of our own.

Born to immigrant Chinese parents, Milton grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He studied economics and political science and graduated from the University of British Columbia to work in the finance sector.

He was the founder of M. K. Wong and Associates, a financial management firm that would acquire billions of dollars in assets.

Commitment to community and diversity

Wong supported a number of charitable and research organizations in British Columbia. The UBC Genome Project, YWCA and the BC Cancer Agency were among these.

Douglas Nelson, president and CEO of the BC Cancer Foundation, acknowledged one of Wong’s many contributions to the community.
“As co-chair of the foundation’s Millennium Campaign, [Milton Wong] was instrumental in helping to raise millions of dollars to construct the BC Cancer Agency’s Research Centre,” he wrote.

Wong, who supported various causes throughout his lifetime, also founded the Laurier Institution in Vancouver, which explores issues of diversity in Canada. In 1989, he co-founded The Canadian International Dragon Boat Festival Society. Every year, the society organizes the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival as a way to celebrate multiculturalism in the city.

Chancellor at SFU 1999–2005

After receiving an honourary degree from Simon Fraser University in 1998, Wong served as chancellor for two terms.

“The role of the chancellor is very malleable, but what was extraordinary about Milton is that he took an active role,” explains SFU president Andrew Petter.

He adds that as a chancellor, Wong went above and beyond what was expected of him and he “mobilized the university to address what wasn’t being met.”

Through his role, he also supported the development of First Nations programming, including setting up programs to provide business training to Aboriginal communities in the northwestern coast of B.C..

According to Petter, when SFU’s Woodward’s project in Vancouver Downtown Eastside was proposed, Wong supported the development because he saw it as “an opportunity for SFU to play a vibrant role and … to create social and economic impact in the area.”

Petter also reflects on Milton’s commitment to multiculturalism and how he “stepped up to the challenge to provide a forum for discussion and engagement in his community and led and challenged SFU to be what it is.”

Petter says that a few months ago, he was proud and pleased to present Wong with an award for his advocacy and community vision during the Nancy McKinstry Awards of Diversity. His daughter, Elizabeth Wong, received the award on his behalf.

Social consciousness and the Nisga’a Treaty

The Nisga’a Nation, which Wong actively supported, also offered condolences to his family.

“Milton Wong will always be remembered as one of the first business leaders in B.C. to actively and publicly call for a resolution to the land question in B.C.,” they wrote.

He supported the Nisga’a Final Agreement, also known as B.C.’s first modern-day land claims agreement, which came into effect in May 2000 with the transfer of almost 2,000 square kilometres of Crown land to the Nisga’a Nation.

Indeed, as Petter explains, Wong continued to take an interest in the issues affecting Aboriginal Peoples right up until his death.

“Just a few weeks ago [Milton Wong] invited me to his home to share his thoughts on what SFU could do to help address health issues in Aboriginal communities,” he wrote on his blog.

He added that despite the fact that Mr. Wong “was fighting the illness he had, he was so concerned about issues around water for the Aboriginal communities that he felt SFU could play an even greater role in that, to address historical injustices.”

Among the awards conferred to Wong in his lifetime were the Order of British Columbia, the Order of Canada, and the Freedom of the City award, which is considered the highest award given by the City of Vancouver and entitles the bearer to be called Freeman of the City of Vancouver. It is a title that Wong now shares with such eminent people as William Lyon MacKenzie King, a former Canadian prime minister, and the Victoria-born artist Bill Reid.