Joe was born in Laokay, Vietnam in 1933, the youngest of 11 children of Tao Sung Yu and Phuong Ying Lee. Tragedy came early when he suffered the loss of his father in an Allied bombing raid against the occupying Japanese Army. His mother worked hard to keep everyone together and the lessons he learned early in life as to the value of family and the importance of hard work stayed with him.
After the Geneva Convention (1954) resulted in the partitioning of Vietnam, Joe left to study medicine at Taiwan National University. After some early struggles – he spoke only Vietnamese and Cantonese but the courses were in English and Mandarin – he persevered and graduated in 1961. He came to Canada to finish his studies in Regina and then Winnipeg. It was there that he met his beloved Jeannine, whom he married in 1964. He and Jeannine soon started a family with the birth of their son, Alex.
In 1965, Joe attended the University of Washington to further his pediatric studies. There, his second child, Audrey, was born. In 1966, Dr. Du returned to Canada, qualified as a pediatrician, and began his practice at the Winnipeg Clinic. The family he and Jeannine started soon grew as two more daughters, Jennifer and Michelle, followed.
His practice quickly grew but so did his community activities. In the late 1970s he played a major role in the resettlement of refugees who came to Canada from Southeast Asia, working with leaders from many different organizations and communities. In the 1980s he led the effort to revitalize Chinatown, together with Philip Lee, the former Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, and Hung Yuen Lee. While an earlier initiative a decade before had failed, this one did not. Working with all levels of government and countless representatives from various parts of the community, the area was transformed. The Harmony Mansion housing complex was followed by a parkade, a Chinese Garden, the gate that stands at the entrance to Chinatown and, perhaps his proudest legacy, the Chinese Cultural Centre. Two private sector collaborations followed, which resulted in the Dynasty Building and the Mandarin Building. In less than a decade one of the oldest and most historic neighbourhoods in Winnipeg was transformed and Joe Du played the crucial role in making this happen.
At the same time his work as a physician took an important turn. Early in his career, he became involved in an effort that a colleague established to provide better health care to Aboriginal communities in Northern Manitoba. For 33 years Dr. Du regularly flew at least once or twice a month to Norway House, Cross Lake, and other First Nations, in small airplanes and under often difficult conditions. Two generations of these communities grew up under his care and the children he looked after in the early years later brought in their own sons and daughters to see Dr. Du. During this time he also served as an Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba Medical School and organized the first symposium on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Winnipeg in 1982.
All the while his work with the community continued, including: spearheading the six month visit of two pandas from Chengdu to the Winnipeg Zoo in 1989; commissioning a monument by Leo Mol in 1998 honouring the contribution made by Chinese Railroad workers in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in the 1870s, which now sits at the entrance to the Leo Mol sculpture garden in Assiniboine Park; working with Winnipeg’s Jewish community to bring the Shanghai Connection exhibition, which told the story of the successful efforts of a Chinese counsel in Vienna to help over 18,000 Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust by arranging visas allowing them to immigrate to Shanghai, to the Jewish Heritage Centre in 2001; encouraging a succession of federal governments to address the injustice of the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which for decades institutionalized a discriminatory policy against Chinese Canadians, resulting in an apology by Prime Minister Harper on behalf of the people of Canada and the establishment of a $24 million community historical recognition program in 2006; leading the effort in 2006 to commission a second statue created by Professor Wang Guanyi of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute honouring the Chinese railroad workers, which now sits in the garden at the Millennium Library awaiting a move to its permanent home at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; and chairing the Peace Tower building project, which added a 44 unit nonprofit housing complex in Winnipeg’s Chinatown area. He continued to work on new developments in Chinatown until his passing.
Dr. Du had many rare talents, but perhaps the first among them was his ability to harness the efforts and skills of others to achieve a common goal. In the course of doing so, he leaves a legacy of many remarkable and deep friendships with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, such as the late Mayor Bill Norrie, the Honourable Scott Wright, former Lieutenant Governor Pearl Mc Gonigal, former Lieutenant Governor Philip Lee, and Dr. Patrick Choy, to name just a few.
Not every project that Dr. Du undertook was a success – in the words of Robert Browning, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – and in the 1984 federal election he ran in Stanley Knowles’ former riding, losing to the NDP candidate in what was at best an uphill battle. But setbacks were few and they were always met with an unshakable optimism and confidence in the ability of people to do good things and create a greater community in all respects. This belief was always translated into action, and he served as an officer or member of the board of many charitable, educational or community service organizations, including: Director of St. Boniface General Hospital; Member of the Board of Governors of the University of Manitoba; Director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; President and Director of the International Centre; National Co-Chair of the ; Chinese Canadian Congress; and director of almost every Chinese organization in Winnipeg, most notably for over 30 years as the only President the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural Centre has ever known. While Dr. Du was not born in Canada, he was among its proudest of citizens, grateful for all the opportunities it had given him and anxious to give back to the country he loved.
Over the years Dr. Du’s efforts were recognized with many awards, including the Order of Canada, the Order of Manitoba and the Order of the Buffalo Hunt. In 2013 a portion of James Street in Winnipeg’s Chinatown was renamed in his honour.
Joe was the first to acknowledge that none of what he accomplished would have been possible without the support of Jeannine and his family, who meant everything to him. While his efforts in the community often took him away from them, they shared in his successes and always knew that the only thing that exceeded his love for the community was his love for his family. He especially treasured his time with them at their cottage at Granite Lake, Ontario. He loved to spend time in and around the lake, and was happiest when having parties with his grandchildren in the gazebo. He always made time to laugh with his grandchildren, and took great pride in his children’s and grandchildren’s achievements.
Dr. Joseph Du passed away peacefully on Sunday, March 19, 2017 after a rich, remarkable and exemplary life.