Commemorating a race riot

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      On September 7, representatives from five communities–Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, aboriginal, and labour–will commemorate Vancouver's anti-Asian riot of 1907.

      On that day a hundred years ago, a Caucasian mob attacked local residents and smashed storefront windows in Chinatown and Japantown. The riot took place after a march organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League that wound up in a rally at City Hall, which was then located on Main Street. With banners reading Stand for a White Canada, the demonstrators, including politicians and labour leaders, called for an end to Asian immigration to British Columbia.

      Henry Yu, an associate professor of history at UBC, explains that the 1907 riot is a link in the chain of Canada's racist history. In an interview with the Georgia Straight, he noted that the rising anti-Asian sentiment at that time was occurring as First Nations peoples were in the process of being moved to reserves.

      Yu pointed out that white supremacy was the political tool that united Caucasians in what he said was essentially a land grab of traditional Native territories and the removal of Asians from jobs to make way for new settlers. "What did they unite around?" he asked. "Two main things: one, get rid of the Natives; two, get rid of the Asians."

      The federal government ordered an inquiry in the aftermath of the riot and damages were subsequently paid out to Chinese and Japanese merchants. But as Yu pointed out, what followed was a series of actions that institutionalized anti-Asian discrimination. These include the Hayashi-Lemieux Agreement of 1908 between Canada and Japan that limited Japanese immigration.

      Another was the creation by Parliament of the 1908 "continuous journey" regulation that amended the Immigration Act. This was invoked to bar people from what was then known as British India by requiring a continuous journey, without stops, from a prospective immigrant's homeland to Canada. (Ottawa's shutting down of the only direct shipping line between India and Vancouver effectively ensured no Indian immigrants would be allowed.) In an attempt to challenge the regulation, the chartered ship Komagata Maru left Hong Kong and travelled to Vancouver in 1914 with more than 350 passengers from Punjab, most of them Sikhs. The ship was forced to leave after sitting in Burrard Inlet for two months; two months later, in India, some of the passengers ended up being shot and killed by British colonial soldiers.

      In 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act replaced the head-tax policy and banned Chinese immigration to Canada. This was repealed in 1947 when Chinese and South Asian immigrants were finally allowed to vote. The right to vote was granted to First Nations peoples in 1960.

      "Between 1907 and 1947, there was this fantasy of Canada being only for whites," Yu said. "Their phrase was 'white Canada forever'. That meant white Canada forever in the future and white Canada in the past."

      Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, told the Straight that although labour unions played a role in the 1907 riot, workers "were victims too" by employers who decided it was good for business to use cheap Asian labour.

      "We opposed immigration from countries such as China," Sinclair said. "People from Japan were brought in to break strikes. It divided workers and it was a shame."

      Sinclair said that Canadian society at that time was a racist society and white workers were caught up in it. "It was a while before, thankfully, the labour movement got ourselves in the right direction, which was to say that the enemy wasn't Chinese workers but employers who used workers and divided us along racial lines," he said. He also noted that organized labour today acknowledges events like the 1907 riot.

      The executive director of the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop said a broader acknowledgement of events like the 1907 riot can be achieved if the histories of minority groups are taught in B.C. schools. "About a quarter of the population is minorities, and yet how come the school system doesn't really bring this kind of history?" Jim Wong-Chu told the Straight. "Most of the people I know, the young Asians, the only time they are exposed to history about ethnic minorities is when they get to university."