Racism of 100 years ago still has an effect

Historian Henry Yu wonders what modern-day multicultural Vancouver would be like if history had taken a different course in the early 1900s.

A hundred years ago, in 1908, the Canadian government brought forward two measures that further restricted the already-limited migration of Asians to the country.

One was the “continuous journey” regulation that required a nonstop trip from a prospective immigrant’s homeland to Canada, effectively slamming the doors on South Asians. The other was the Lemieux-Hayashi agreement between Canada and Japan that limited the number of Japanese immigrants.

The Chinese were dealt with much earlier. Starting in 1885, Chinese immigrants had to pay a $50 head tax to come to Canada. This rose to $500 in 1903. Twenty years later, in 1923, Chinese immigration was banned.

“When we think of 1908, it’s that moment when a world that was already being created and formed was cut off,” Yu told the Georgia Straight. “Could the world we live in right now, the Vancouver we live in now, could that have been achieved much earlier?”

A UBC associate professor of history, Yu and other academics, scholars, and community activists will try to arrive at answers to that question at a forum this Saturday (July 19) from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the university’s St. John’s College. The forum is just one event this month organized by Anniversaries of Change, a coalition that marks milestones in Canada’s history as a multicultural nation.

“One answer to what the world would have been like might be well the world we live in today, except much earlier,” Yu said. He also suggests that the challenges being faced by immigrant-destination cities like Vancouver could have been addressed decades ago had Asian migration been unfettered.

University of Victoria history professor John Price is expected to be one of the panelists at this Saturday’s forum, entitled “The Fall and Rise Again of Pacific Canada”.

In a paper published last winter in the journal BC Studies, Price noted that the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver “were the result of resistance by Asian migrants to previous attempts to limit their arrival and their rights in Canada”.

Price also wrote that while the Canadian government offered compensation for damages caused by the rioters, “the main impact of the riots was a renewed and determined federal effort to prohibit Asian immigration”.