Chinese people around the world will welcome the Lunar New Year on Sunday (February 10), but some Vancouver residents are sensing a rising tide of Sinophobia in Canada.
It’s a feeling that has stirred up memories of historical wrongs, like the head tax of 1885 and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which replaced it in 1923 and shut the door on Chinese immigrants until 1947.
It’s a foreboding that has come out of such things as a Nanos Research survey for CBC in October showing that Canadians see China as the greatest threat to Canada’s national security, ahead of Iran. There’s widespread opposition to the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement inked by Ottawa and Beijing. There’s also a lot of hostility to a Chinese state-owned corporation’s $15.1-billion purchase of the Calgary-based oil-and-gas company Nexen Inc.
Here in B.C., China figures prominently in debates about the construction of new pipelines to carry oil and fracked gas destined for Asian markets. It doesn’t help that for years, Vancouverites have accused Chinese people, both local and abroad, of snapping up Vancouver properties and making homes in the city unaffordable.
David Wong wonders why there’s so much “rhetoric” around the now-delayed plan to hire around 200 workers from China to work in a coal mine in northern B.C. The Vancouver architect pointed out that there is silence regarding the federal government’s plan to increase the annual quota for young workers from Ireland by 1,000, to 6,350, in 2013. Starting in 2014, the number of spaces for temporary Irish workers will rise to 10,000.
“The Chinese are just an easy group to single out,” Wong, author of the 2012 book Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
As chair of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, Bill Chu successfully campaigned for an apology from the City of New Westminster for its past anti-Chinese policies. Chu also wants the B.C. government to acknowledge the province’s role in discrimination against early Chinese settlers.
According to the Hong Kong native, the dislike of Chinese people has only lain dormant and is apparently being roused by recent events. “Anti-Chinese sentiment has never really gone away from B.C.,” Chu told the Straight in a phone interview. “Historically, it was there.”
Labour unions played a key role in the formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League that rampaged during Vancouver’s anti-Asian riot of 1907.
But Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, doesn’t see anti-Chinese sentiment as being on the rise.
“I don’t believe that,” Sinclair told the Straight by phone. “I don’t think this is about Chinese. It’s about foreign ownership of our country.”
Sinclair emphasized that the labour movement opposed the Chinese acquisition of Nexen in the same way that it fought the attempted takeover by Australian mining giant BHP Billiton of the Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan. He added that the B.C. Fed has called for a moratorium on the recruitment of all temporary foreign workers.
Joey Hartman is the president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. She’s not seeing any evidence of an increase in anti-Chinese views either. What she perceives is the “attention” being paid to China as an economic force. It is “catching people by surprise”, Hartman told the Straight by phone.
Focusing on the flap over the Chinese coal miners, historian Jim Wong-Chu noted that “in some ways, it’s a throwback, like it or not”.
“Every once in a while, this kind of thing rears its head and people that have these underlying feelings sometimes will become more vocal,” Wong-Chu told the Straight in a phone interview.
University of Manitoba academic David Camfield stressed that recent events should be understood within the context of Canada’s record in dealing with early Chinese immigration.
“All this racist history has left its mark on Canadian society, and it affects how people interpret these issues today,” Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies, told the Straight in a phone interview. He noted that the perceived re-emergence of Sinophobia is “probably true”.