Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots
By Julie F. Gilmour. Allen Lane, 240 pp, hardcover
With the looming 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru into Vancouver's harbour—and the subsequent deportation of more than 350 of its South Asian passengers back to India—a great deal of attention is being focused on Canada's racist past.
There's an exhibit on the Komagata Maru at the Surrey Museum, another at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, theatrical events at UBC, and a film screening of Ali Kazimi's Continuous Journey at Surrey City Hall. And on Thursday (April 24), NDP Leader Adrian Dix will join UBC historian Henry Yu and University of Fraser Valley Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies director Satwinder Bains at the Vancouver Maritime Museum for a discussion on historical apologies.
Another worthy addition to people's understanding of the tenor of the times comes in a new book by University of Toronto historian Julie Gilmour.
Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots examines how a rampaging mob, motivated by an American labour agitator named A.E. Fowler, helped launch the political career of Canada's longest-serving prime minister.
It's an astonishing examination of that racially charged era, aided in large measure by the voluminous diaries that King kept throughout much of his life.
While many Vancouverites are aware that a mob attacked Chinatown and Japantown in September 1907, few realize that a young deputy minister of labour, MacKenzie King, was assigned by then-prime minister Wilfred Laurier to hold commissions of inquiry assessing damages for the Japanese and Chinese victims.
He parlayed this into getting elected to the House of Commons for the first time in 1908.
This occurred in the midst of rising tensions between America and Japan, with then-president Teddy Roosevelt believing that war was on the horizon. Meanwhile, Japan was a British ally and British officials were convinced that Roosevelt's fears were unfounded.
Gilmour demonstrates how King stepped into the breach by acting as a go-between, taking Roosevelt's message to London. It was the first of many diplomatic endeavours in his life, and enabled him to meet major figures in Britain's foreign service.
As an inquiry commissioner, King won the trust of Japanese and Chinese diplomats with his careful analysis and by recommending compensation for those caught up in the riots.
During his probe into the situation in Chinatown, he became aware of the extent of opium use. That led to legislation in 1908 banning the importation and manufacture of opium for anything other than medical use, giving King new lustre as an international expert on illicit drugs.
For those interested in the history of the Komagata Maru, the most intriguing parts of Trouble on Main Street focus on how King, Laurier, Roosevelt, and other major figures were so imbued with a sense of white supremacy that they were incapable of seeing people of other races as equals.
At one point after a trip to India, King expresses relief in his diary at being back onboard a European liner, which is bound for China. Gilmour has included this passage from King in Trouble on Main Street:
"It is impossible to describe how refreshing it is to be again with people of one's own colour. One becomes very tired of the black races after living among them. It is clear that the two were never meant to intermix freely. I find it very pleasant to be on a German ship."
King also believed that people from India were not suited to live in Canada because of its climate. He held this view even though most South Asian immigrants of that era were from the northern area of Punjab, where it occasionally snows.
At the same time, Gilmour reports that King had good relationships with well-educated diplomats in Japan and China, as well as with a Bengali intellectual named Surendranath Banerjea, who opposed British rule over India.
King didn't believe that self-rule was possible in India given the religious and racial diversity and the lack of formal education, but he still acknowledged that Canada, like India, sometimes suffered negative consequences as a result of its imperial ties.
Much has been made about the role of the First World War in triggering a greater desire for Canadian independence from British control.
Gilmour, however, makes a good case that this appetite to loosen the bonds existed before then, and could be seen in King's efforts to steer a middle road between American and British objectives regarding China and Japan.
Trouble on Main Street also reveals that King tried to negotiate an end to the Chinese head tax during a diplomatic mission to China in 1909. It would have required the Chinese government to introduce a passport system. At one point, a top Chinese official suggested to King that Chinese emigration to Canada could be capped at 10,000 per year in return for scrapping the $500 levy on immigrants from China.
Laurier's response was to say that he would only entertain this idea if a maximum of 1,000 would be admitted annually, and talks broke down.
In light of all the heartache that followed from Canada's Chinese exclusion legislation from 1923 to 1947, this is one of the greatest lost opportunities in our diplomatic history. But Gilmour credits King for doing his best to craft a solution in the wake of the riots.
Curiously, King headed the Liberal government that brought in the exclusion legislation. He was also prime minister when Japanese Canadians were sent to internment camps following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour.
"He traded on his society's belief that Canada was not a place suited to Indian immigrants to sell the idea that laws preventing immigration were humanitarian rather than exclusionary," Gilmour points out, "and he expected that Canadians would agree that Asian immigrants could not 'assimilate' the way others could. The fact that racism was widespread and banal made it all the more powerful."
The history is superb, the storytelling is exceptional, and the end result is a nuanced and fair-minded book that connects a shocking event in downtown Vancouver to Canada's emergence as an independent nation in the 20th century.
The Komagata Maru incident receives only a brief mention in the book because it occurred several years later. But for those interested in gaining greater understanding into what led up to the vessel's expulsion in 1914, Trouble on Main Street is full of intriguing insights.