Op-ed: B.C. must reconcile with its past official racism against Chinese Canadians

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By Adrian Dix, Special to the Straight

“The people of Canada want to have a white country.”

— Sir Wilfrid Laurier, former prime minister of Canada

“British Columbia shall be a white man’s province.”

— Sir Richard MacBride, former premier of B.C.

A “White Man’s Province” was more than a slogan, a political excess. It was a primary feature of B.C. government policy for seven decades after B.C. joined Canada in 1871, with Chinese Canadians a constant target of hostile action by their provincial government and legislature. British Columbia passed an avalanche of discriminatory legislation in this period—a record not matched in any other Canadian province.

Over a thousand Chinese Canadians brought here as “cheap labour” died in the construction of our national railway. Immigration was almost solely male.

By 1921, 50 years after B.C. joined Confederation, there were 18 Chinese Canadian men for every one Chinese Canadian woman. Racist policies against Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians were a feature of national policy, notably the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was always in British Columbia where official racism was most strongly supported and promoted.

In both Canada and B.C., there were two strands of action in official policy toward Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadians and South Asian Canadians) at times in conflict with one another, while both resting on an ideology of white superiority. The first sought benefits in a supply of cheap labor made up of noncitizens with few if any rights. The second feared the consequences of such immigration on wages and opportunities.

In this context, the individual and community contribution of Chinese Canadians throughout B.C.’s history is all the more extraordinary.

This year, there will an opportunity for the B.C. legislature and the province to reconcile itself with these historical wrongs toward Chinese Canadians. The government is proposing that a formal apology be made by the legislature. A consultation about the apology is underway, mostly involving Chinese-Canadian groups.

The government’s idea for an apology had its genesis in the Liberal “quick wins” scandal with the premier’s office suggesting that such apologies would benefit the premier politically and personally. Apologies represent transactional politics for the premier.

However, such cynicism must not sully what could be an important moment for our province. An apology should proceed but it is not sufficient.

What is also required is reconciliation, empathy, and a lasting legacy that will promote understanding for all British Columbians, particularly young people. As part of this effort, I have worked to prepare some material that should be widely circulated in B.C. that details the extent of official and legal discrimination against Chinese Canadians in our province.

After all, to apologize, we all need to understand what we are sorry for and then to reconcile ourselves to that history.

Anti-Chinese Laws in B.C.

With the remarkable help of the talented staff at the B.C. Legislative Library, I have reviewed the legislative record in B.C. The result reveals the depth of the legacy in B.C. In the coming week, I will be sharing the results of this work with British Columbians.

What is striking is the sheer volume of racist, discriminatory legislation against Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadian and South Asians)—89 separate bills and 49 resolutions of the B.C. legislature passed from 1872 to 1928, seven reports, and two resolutions from the Committee of Supply authorizing expenditure. This does not include the numerous motions, questions, and efforts by private members to propose further laws. The intent was to fulfill the vision of a “White Man’s Province”; and this pursuit was only tempered by the desire of industry to have access to cheap and vulnerable labour, a view entirely unchallenged in the legislature until the arrival of the CCF in the 1930s.

What did this avalanche of legislative activity address? Of the 89 discriminatory bills, 58 addressed labour and employment, 12 economic and social rights, 10 voting rights, nine immigration issues, and one vital statistics. Of the 49 motions, 16 dealt with immigration, 12 labour and employment, eight the Chinese Head Tax, six economic rights and taxes, five health, and two voting rights.

The legislation was consistently derogatory in tone, reflecting the belief of B.C. leaders that white men were superior, the fear of miscegenation, and the scapegoating of a portion of the population. While the legislation was reflective of the public mood and the fears of those faced with the threat of loss of their jobs to lower-paid workers without rights, politicians also led public opinion, stirring the issue up again and again for the benefit of successive governments—Liberal and Conservative alike.

Under the BNA Act, the federal government and the Lieutenant Governor have the power to disallow provincial legislation—a power that has fallen into disuse. Using this power between 1878 and 1921, Ottawa disallowed 24 anti-Chinese bills including all of the B.C.-voted statutes on immigration. The purpose of the federal action was not to protect human rights. Rather, it was to safeguard federal jurisdiction and ensure ready access to cheap labour.

Or in the words of our first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, “It is better to have Chinese labour than no labour at all… At any moment when the Legislature of Canada chooses, it can shut down the gate and say, no more immigrants shall come here from China; and those in the country at the time will rapidly disappear and therefore there is no fear of permanent degradation by a mongrel race.”

What is interesting in assessing the actions of the B.C. legislature is the determined effort to pass legislation that MLAs and B.C. governments understood would be disallowed in order to express anti-Chinese sentiment. This was, in effect, a legislative riot, an apt corollary to the actual anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese race riots of 1907.

Even in the mid 1920s, after Chinese Head Tax, the Exclusion Acts, second-class status, no right to vote, dozens of laws barring Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadians and South Asian Canadians) from many jobs, the public service, and working on public works, the B.C. legislature was not satisfied in its pursuit of anti-Chinese initiatives.

In 1927, the legislature commissioned a major report on “Oriental Activities in the Province”, in part to investigate “whether legislation can be enacted to prevent Chinese and Japanese Canadians from owning, selling, leasing or renting land in B.C.”

A year later based on the report, the legislature passed a lengthy motion—vicious in tone—proposing among other things the repatriation of the majority “of the Chinese and the Japanese residing in B.C. to the countries of their respective origins”.

The motion passed unanimously.

Historical Apology and Reconciliation

On the surface, there seems to be great distance between these events and the present-day B.C. The Parliament of Canada enacted a new law establishing full citizenship rights for Chinese Canadians in 1947. It was not until 1967 that remaining vestiges of “race selection” were removed from Canada’s Immigration Act.

The lasting impact of decades of official discrimination lived on however, in the lives of those affected and their families to the present day.

That said, B.C.’s prosperity has been generated to a great extent by an openness to immigration and the path of immigration to citizenship.

Particularly in schools and for young people, there is a vibrant diversity that is a huge advantage for our economy and society.

Some will argue therefore that it is better to live outside of history, to not revisit past wrongs through an official apology and a genuine effort at reconciliation. We should let the past be the past.

Why apologize? Why reconcile ourselves to history? Can we take responsibilities for mistakes or crimes of past generations? These are good questions.

Firstly, an apology is due, to the families directly affected not only by the laws themselves but for the climate of hostility and hatred they reflected. Real losses were felt. Families destroyed. However, any apology will just be words unless it leads to action—for the families affected and a legacy and process of reconciliation that involves lasting understanding.

The federal government’s apology and compensation (a fraction of the value of the tax) for the Chinese Head Tax is of value, but does not address B.C.’s vast legacy of discriminatory laws.

Secondly, this history belongs to us—it is ours. British Columbia is what it is today because of it. Our history of official racism, the “white man’s province” influences our present as much as past laws in other jurisdiction do from Alabama to Cape Town. However, despite much of the progress we have made, the issues involved continue and will continue to affect us. It lives with us and in us, and recognizing this is not just important for politicians and Chinese Canadian but the whole society.

Simply, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to become a better province if we don’t understand who we are.

Thirdly, apologies can be of great value as a tool of education. But this is only the case if they result in an ongoing legacy of reconciliation.

Two years ago, the provincial legislature passed a formal apology to Japanese Canadians. Naomi Yamamoto, the Liberal MLA for North Vancouver Lonsdale, moved the motion and gave a great speech. I spoke as well in support of her motion, which was passed unanimously. Afterward, there was a reception in the minister’s office. For those small number who participated, it was a very moving experience, one I am proud to have played a small role in.

However, there was no follow-up. The premier did not participate or show up in the House or at the reception. And there was no lasting legacy, no learning, very few British Columbians would have heard that it happened.

We can and must do better.

There are lessons in Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa,  and in our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada addressing First Nations and residential schools about the opportunities for this path.

The challenge in facing Canada’s legacy with First Nations is of immense and ongoing proportion. Our country and province is founded by this imperialist legacy—a legacy through which all Canadian injustices must be viewed. In spite of the immensity of the challenge, the TRC is showing that progress can be made.

Finally, there is this. We are reliving some of this history in the present time.

At its core, Canada and B.C.’s policies toward Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians and South Asians, were to deny any path to citizenship for workers brought to our country to work. In the present day, a majority of immigrants to Canada are Temporary Foreign Workers, who are denied, should they wish it, any path to citizenship. TFWs regularly work under threat of deportation, a fact that undermines the enforcement of even basic employment standards.

In a time of growing inequality, when B.C. has failed to adequately train skilled workers, the importation of workers will inevitably increase costs and create resentments in our province, just as in the past.

Our society and economy has been most effective when laws are applied equally, ensuring fair treatment to all workers and fair competition. And it has worked most effectively when people who come to B.C. and Canada are allowed to become citizens. This is a lesson that history teaches us. Our racist legacy targeted Chinese Canadians and stunted our growth as a province. Learning this lesson will help us in our present circumstance.

The B.C. NDP will fully participate in working toward an apology and a process of reconciliation. Presenting this important work on B.C.’s legislative history—138 laws and motions and much more—to British Columbians, especially young people, will contribute to it by ensuring a fuller understanding of history. This process can and should involve all citizens who might want to engage and learn.

The goal must be to ensure that the apology is heard, developed with and received by Chinese Canadians, and by those families directly affected. And that we together give further value to the apology by establishing a real lasting legacy founded on reconciliation and education.

Adrian Dix is leader of the official Opposition and MLA for Vancouver Kingsway.

This article originally appeared in the Straight: