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As soon as the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885, Canada took steps to stop Chinese immigration. The Canadian government acted because it, and not any province, had power to make laws related to immigration. The pressure to pass such a law came from British Columbia, but Ottawa took action only after the railway was finished.
Under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), the Canadian government forced every Chinese worker, and family member, wanting to enter Canada to pay a $50 head tax. (In 2008, this amount would buy goods worth $1,100). It was assumed that Chinese people were too poor to pay and therefore would not be able to come to Canada. Merchants and students were exempt from the tax. No immigrants from any other country ever had to pay such a tax to enter Canada.
Government officials kept track of each person who paid, or was exempted from, the tax in large books called the General Registers of Chinese Immigration. These records were maintained from 1885 to 1949 and can now be searched online through the LAC database, Immigrants from China.
The tax worked for a while. The number of Chinese newcomers dropped from 8,000 in 1882 to 124 in 1887. However, more Chinese started coming in the next decade, and Ottawa raised the head tax to $500 in 1903. This amounted to more than a year's wages for the average worker.
The new tax reduced Chinese immigration for a few years. The number of Chinese newcomers began rising again in 1908. In British Columbia, anti-Chinese feelings grew stronger. After the First World War, the economy slowed down, and jobs were hard to find. Many whites blamed the Chinese for taking work away from white people.
In 1923, Canada passed another Chinese Immigration Act, which stopped Chinese immigration. Chinese people living here had to register with the government or they could be deported. They were allowed to go home to China for visits and then to re-enter Canada. But no new immigrants could come in. This meant that Chinese men living here could not bring their families into the country.
After joining Confederation in 1871, British Columbia demanded that no Chinese workers be used to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Canadian government would not agree.
The British Columbia legislature passed laws against the Chinese. They could not vote or be hired on public works projects such as road-building. When the Chinese were first banned from voting in 1872, they formed the majority of voters in some electoral districts. Cities such as Vancouver and Victoria also had rules against using taxpayers' money to hire Chinese workers.
Saskatchewan was the other province that did not allow Chinese to vote in its elections. The voters' list for federal elections took names from provincial voters' lists, so this meant Chinese residents of British Columbia and Saskatchewan could not vote for Members of Parliament.
Anti-Chinese agitation became a powerful force in British Columbia politics. Blaming Chinese immigrants when the economy turned bad became a way of organizing migrants from Great Britain and Europe around the idea of "white supremacy," captured best in the phrase "White Canada Forever."
Anti-Chinese agitators saw that Chinese immigrants came here without families and lived simply. Therefore, they said, Chinese men did not need as much money as whites did to live on and to raise a family. They argued that the Chinese could work for lower wages and would take jobs away from white workers.
White British Columbians also firmly believed that their way of life was better than all others. They saw China as a weak nation of backward people who could never learn to live like white Canadians. Moreover, they said that Chinese people carried diseases and other bad habits (such as smoking opium) that threatened Canada's well-being. Racism against Chinese and other immigrant groups such as Japanese and South Asians, as well as against First Nations peoples, were expressions of a powerful belief in white superiority.
In part, anti-Chinese racism reflected a belief in the superior power of the British Empire, as the strongest political and military force in the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The majority of British Columbia's white population had ethnic origins in the British Isles. Between 1911 and 1941, they formed 70 percent of the province's people, while immigrants from other European countries formed 16 percent. British Columbia's white immigrants also came from the United States and other parts of the British Empire where anti-Chinese racism existed.
Municipal and provincial governments in British Columbia passed the largest number of anti-Chinese laws, but anti-Chinese racism existed across Canada. In 1910, Calgary property owners living near the city's Chinatown wanted to block its growth because of fears of falling real estate prices. In the 1910s, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario prohibited Chinese employers from hiring white females, out of fear that they would take sexual advantage of the women. In 1915, white laundry owners in Montréal called for citizens to boycott Chinese laundries.
In daily life, white Canadians felt free to show their dislike of Chinese people without any concern for the consequences.
Children tormented Chinese peddlers on the street, tipping their carts and destroying what they had to sell, while politicians and newspaper editors condemned the Chinese in speeches and writings. Sometimes public swimming pools were off-limits to Chinese people. As well, Chinese people were only allowed to sit in special sections of some movie theatres.
In 1907, a mob of several thousand white men and boys crashed through Vancouver's Chinatown, breaking every single window there. Japanese neighbourhoods were also vandalized. People in Chinatown feared a bloody massacre and hurried to buy guns to defend themselves. The Chinese and Japanese communities organized a protest to demand that the federal government pay for the damages. The government held two Royal Commissions, led by William Lyon Mackenzie King, which resulted in payment for their losses.
In 1919, several hundred soldiers and civilians rampaged through downtown Halifax. They swept into six Chinese-run cafés to break furniture, loot cash registers and steal goods.
In 1922, school trustees in Victoria, British Columbia, tried to take Chinese students out of regular classes and put them in a separate school. The Chinese community protested fiercely by taking their children out of the schools for an entire year.
During the Depression in the 1930s, Chinese Canadians did not receive the same amount of assistance that was given to white people. In Vancouver's Chinatown, the provincial government gave the Anglican Church 16 cents a day per person to set up a soup kitchen while in other areas white people in need received meal tickets worth 15 to 25 cents each. In Alberta, relief payments of $1.12 per week were given to Chinese people, less than half the amount provided to others.
Individual acts of kindness did occur. For example, newspapers on occasion published letters to the editor that decried bullying of the Chinese. Missionaries in Canada had also befriended the Chinese immigrants since the turn of the century. In the final analysis, though, these sympathetic gestures were greatly outweighed by both the institutional and everyday hostility encountered by the Chinese. The situation only started to improve after the Second World War.
During the Second World War, China and the Allies fought against Germany, Italy and Japan. Chinese Canadians joined Canada's armed services. On the home front, Chinese Canadians from all walks of life raised money in public campaigns for Canada's war effort. They also donated funds to support China's fight against Japan, whose army had invaded their homeland.
The horrors of Nazi racism and the genocide of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust forced white Canadians to confront their own views on race. Earlier, newspapers and labour unions had portrayed the Chinese as unwelcome aliens. After the Second World War, newspapers and labour unions joined church leaders in demanding that the Canadian government treat its Chinese citizens as equals.
In 1945, Canada helped establish the United Nations, which declared equal rights for men and women, and called for people to live together in peace as good neighbours. As part of this commitment, the Canadian government was obliged to review its anti-Chinese laws.
In 1947, it repealed the 1923 law that had stopped Chinese from immigrating to Canada. Chinese Canadians soon had the right to vote all across Canada and for all levels of government.
But the government retained other policies that were unfair. The federal government did not treat Chinese Canadians equally on immigration. Chinese Canadians could bring in only a few family members, while other Canadians could sponsor a much wider range of relatives. In 1967, Canada finally removed restrictions on the basis of race, ethnicity and national origin to its immigration regulations and implemented a "point system."
What was it like to serve in the Second World War? Watch these video interviews with Chinese Canadian veterans, (www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=collections/hr_cdnchinese) on Heroes Remember, produced by the Chinese Canadian Military Museum (www.ccmms.ca/index.asp) and Veterans Canada.
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