RACISM AGAINST ASIAN CANADIANS

PDF version

Chinese Canadians have experienced a long history of racial discrimination in Canada. An intense period followed the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the last spike was driven, the government launched a series of legal measures designed to both deter Chinese immigration and profit from it.

Chinese immigrants first came to Canada in 1858. From 1880, thousands of Chinese workers were imported to build Canada's national railway and were paid starvation wages for performing the most dangerous tasks. Right after the last spike was driven, the Canadian government thanked them by imposing a unique and racist law, the head tax of 1885, which forced all Chinese immigrants to pay a $50 tax. This was increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. Between 1885 and 1923, the Canadian government collected an estimated $23 million from 81,000 Chinese immigrants. (This would be worth $1 billion today.)

The head tax imposed a crushing burden on the impoverished new immigrants. At the time, $500 was the equivalent of two years' wages. Many paid off the unwieldy debts incurred by the tax through long, painful years of hard labour. At the same time, the Canadian government was paying many European immigrants to settle on land that had been seized from Aboriginal peoples. Chinese were the only immigrants ever forced to pay a head tax.

In 1923, after a wave of anti-Chinese riots and legislation in Western Canada, the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act was passed, effectively prohibiting the entry of all Chinese into Canada. Until the act was repealed in 1947, only about 50 Chinese people were allowed to enter this country.

These actions had a devastating effect on the Chinese population in Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act shattered the hope of family reunification. Wives and children were separated from their husbands and fathers for a quarter of a century.

The suffering and injustice that these harsh measures imposed are still fresh in the memories of Chinese Canadians today. Fewer than 1,000 head-tax payers are still alive, but widows and descendants also suffer from the racist treatment. In fact, during the long years of exclusion, the Chinese-Canadian population actually declined. In the 1920s and '30s, there were 12 to 15 times more men than women.

In the early part of this century, Sikhs started to migrate to Canada, mainly to B.C. By 1906, about 1,500 Sikhs were living in the Vancouver area. Sir Wilfrid Laurier alleged that Indians were "unsuited to live in the climatic conditions of British Columbia and were a serious disturbance to industrial and economic conditions."

Visible because of their turbans and beards, Sikhs were prime targets. In addition, this community was considered to be less docile, and assaults on Sikhs were a daily routine in Vancouver. At the same time, the immigration of Chinese and Japanese had created an anti-Asian sentiment among white Canadians.

Among the most classic examples of Canadian racism towards citizens of Asian ancestry are those enshrined in the law. The British Properties Covenant against Asians and Blacks in one sector of Vancouver, for example, specified where they could live, work and travel and whom they could employ.

As late as 1973, a residential section of Vancouver stipulated on each property deed that no person of Asian or African ancestry could stay on the premises overnight except as a servant. Similar laws in Saskatchewan went so far as to prevent white women from working for Asians.

In 1908, the Canadian government passed two orders-in-council specifically designed to prohibit East Indian immigration to Canada. One raised the amount of money an immigrant was required to possess from $25 to $200. The other prohibited entry into Canada of people unless they came "directly from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth or citizenship."

Only East Indians were subject to these restrictions. Other immigrants were not required to have $200 in their possession, and there were no direct sea routes from India to Canada.

To circumvent the latter order-in-council, the Japanese ship Komagata Maru was chartered for a direct journey from Calcutta to Vancouver. On board were 376 Indians, all but 30 of them Sikhs. Even though all the requirements were satisfied, the Indians were not allowed to leave the ship on arrival in Vancouver. Sir Richard McBride, then premier of B.C., said that "to admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples, and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man's country."

In May 1914, two months of negotiations proved fruitless and the Komagata Maru returned to Calcutta with her load of passengers. There, British authorities opened fire on the passengers as they disembarked, killing 18 and wounding 25, and imprisoned more than 200 of the remaining.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King later pressured the Indian government to stop the migration of Indians and enforced the Emigration Act of 1883 to further prevent them from leaving India.

Application of this requirement was sometimes used retroactively, preventing family reunification by barring spouses and children from immigrating.

Decades later, Sikhs are still defending their turbans. There is controversy over whether turbans should be permitted as part of the RCMP uniform, and some branches of the Royal Canadian Legion have banned entry on Remembrance Day to those wearing turbans.

The "Paki-bashing" of more recent years has its strongest roots in Western Canada. Canada's first race riots occurred in Vancouver in 1807, when whites attacked Asian sectors of the city.

Finally, there was the selective denial of voting rights and citizenship. East Indian-, Chinese- and Japanese-Canadians did not receive voting privileges and were prevented from obtaining Canadian citizenship until 1947.

A final, classic example of Canadian racism is the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. At war with Japan, Germany and Italy, Canada forcibly moved Japanese Canadians to internment camps, dispossessing them of their property and personal belongings. Although Japanese Canadians were not the only people interned in Canada during the war, they were interned in far greater numbers than any other group.