By John Price and Grace Eiko Thomson
On October 19, 1900, a Japanese Canadian fisherman purposefully walked into a Vancouver voting station and asked that his name be placed on the voters list.
The registrar of voters, Thomas Cunningham, refused to do so.
And so began a momentous and protracted battle in the history of civil rights in this province.
Tomekichi (Tomey) Homma was the man the Japanese Canadian community had put their trust in to challenge the province’s electoral law that said: “No Chinaman, Japanese, or Indian (Native) shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District, or be entitled to vote at any election of a Member to serve in the Legislative Assemble of this province.”
Denied his request to be placed on the voters list, Homma launched a lawsuit that turned into an epic legal conflict. Though Homma would lose the legal battle, others would take up the baton of justice and eventually triumph in 1947.
Tomey Homma did not live to see the fruits of that victory. He died in a detention camp near Slocan in 1945.
This Sunday, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada will finally honour and officially recognize Homma for his contribution with a plaque to be unveiled at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre.
A legal landmark
As head of the Steveston-based Japanese Fisherman’s Association for a dozen years, Homma was no stranger to conflict. He knew firsthand how the lack of voting rights affected Asian Canadians—how they were channelled into resource industries because the discriminatory system meant they could not work in professions such as law or pharmacy; they could not work for government, hold public office, or serve on juries.
Still, Homma, like many others, became attached to the land. He became a citizen and, after moving to Vancouver in 1897, he emerged as a community leader, prepared to fight for justice.
And so six days after Thomas Cunningham refused his voter application, he filed a lawsuit against Cunningham and the B.C. government. Diligent research by SFU professor Andrea Geiger has revealed the twists and turns of a complicated legal battle.
Homma won his case in the Vancouver County Court that November. The court ruled that only the federal government could legislate on such matters and that the Naturalization Act of the era entitled every citizen to the same rights as those born in the territory. Homma had naturalized in 1896.
The provincial government, however, refused to accept the court’s decision and appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court. That court upheld the decision in Homma’s favour. Still, the B.C. government of the day (James Dunsmuir, premier; D.M. Eberts, attorney general) refused to bow to the Canadian courts and demanded special leave to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, then the highest court of appeal in the British Empire.
The Judicial Committee agreed to hear the case and the B.C. government retained lawyers in Toronto and London to argue its case. In a remarkable letter to the British lawyer who argued the case for the province, D.W. Eberts, B.C.’s attorney general, stated: “Even if they exercised the franchise properly, it is intolerable that these foreign races, which can never be assimilated with our population, should in many constituencies determine who shall represent the people in the legislature.”
Previously, in a memo to cabinet regarding protests from the Japanese government about B.C.’s discriminatory policies, Eberts argued that the legislature prevented women from voting so why should they not stop Asians?
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council agreed with Eberts, overturned the Canadian courts’ rulings, and upheld the right of the province to discriminate against people based on their origins. Basing its decision on outdated, pre–Civil War American law, the judicial committee determined that the federal government had power over citizenship, but asserted that only the province could determine the "privileges attached to it, where these depend upon residence, are quite independent of nationality".
The judicial committee’s ruling was a landmark, justifying legalized racism. The B.C. government’s persistence in fighting the lower courts’ decision reflected the consolidation of British Columbia as a "White Man’s Country". It would lead to the attempted ethnic cleansing of Japanese Canadians from the province during the Second World War.
Rounded up with more than 20,000 other Japanese Canadians during the war, Tomey Homma couldn’t believe what was happening. His son Keay recalled his father saying: “We’re Canadians. How can they do this to us?”
Today we know how it happened—B.C. had become a province like no other.
It began with the dispossession of First Nations and the B.C. government’s refusal to sign treaties. Then, after the province joined Confederation in 1871, the all-white, male legislature voted unanimously in favour of a law “excluding the Chinese and Indians” from voting.
At the time, there were only about 10,000 people of European origin in the province, compared to 35,000 Indigenous people and 5,000 Chinese.
To ensure its power, the B.C. legislature then added Canadians of Japanese heritage (1895) and South Asian heritage (1907) to the list of those excluded from voting. It also began a concerted campaign to halt immigration from across the Pacific.
The quest for civil rights in this province did not end with Homma’s lawsuit of 1900. Others in the affected communities took up the mantle of activism. Alexander Cumyow, the first person of Chinese heritage to be born in B.C., was preparing to file a similar court case in 1902.
In 1906, Cowichan Chief Charlie Tsulpi’multw, together with Squamish Chief Joe Capilano and Shuswap Chief Basil David travelled to London to visit King Edward VII and to lay before him a petition protesting the seizure of their lands and the lack of voting rights: “But when Sir James Douglas was no longer governor other white people settled upon our lands, and titles were issued to them by the British Columbia government. We have appealed to the Dominion government, which is made up of men elected by the white people who are living on our lands, and, of course, can get no redress from that quarter. We have no vote, if we had it might be different; but as it is we are at the mercy of those who [have no] mercy.”
In 1912, South Asian activist Husain Rahim also protested the lack of voting rights by getting his name on the voters list for the provincial election held that year. He not only voted—he acted as a scrutineer at Vancouver City Hall! The notorious police agent William Hopkinson promptly had him arrested.
Chinese communities mobilized for both provincial and federal voting rights during and immediately after the war.
Women suffragettes finally won the battle for the provincial franchise in 1917 but only for white women. They, along with many First World War veterans groups, campaigned against Japanese Canadian veterans trying to gain the vote from the Hart government in 1920.
The Women’s Canadian Club complained that the issue was one that concerned “the very woof and fabric of the Anglo-Saxon civilization.” They strongly disapproved of any measure granting the vote to the “Japanese or Chinese on any grounds whatsoever”, because to do so fundamentally means the “jeopardizing of our racial traditions and the undermining of Christianity”.
By the 1930s, however, changes had begun. Japanese Canadian veterans of the First World War won the right to vote in 1931. The newly founded Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), adopted the Regina Manifesto calling for “equal treatment before the law of all residents of Canada irrespective of race, nationality or religious or political beliefs”.
Not long after, the party supported a delegation of the Japanese Canadians Citizens’ League to lobby for the vote in the Special Committee on Elections and Franchise Act.
The lack of voting rights made Japanese Canadians vulnerable when the Second World War escalated in 1941.
Activists from the South Asian and Chinese Canadian communities, however, were able to wage concerted campaigns for the right to vote. Khalsa Diwan societies and activists such as Darshan Singh Sangha, Kapoor Singh, Mayo Singh, Dr. Durai Pal Pandia, and Kartar Singh pressured the government through petitions and meetings with cabinet.
Activists including Foon Sien, Velma Chan, Esther Fung, Gordon Cumyow, and Roy Mah with organizations such as the Chinese Canadian Association, the Chinese Youth Association, and many others also mounted concerted efforts for the vote, often backed by Chinese Canadian veterans.
During the war, the provincial CCF introduced a bill to give Asian Canadians and First Nations the right to vote. However, G.S. Pearson, provincial secretary and labour minister who spearheaded the provincial government’s efforts to uproot Japanese Canadians, remained recalcitrant.
“There is no body in the province as unreliable, dishonest and deceitful as the Hindus,” he stated in opposition to enfranchisement for all.
In 1947, the efforts of Tomekichi Homma and many others began to bear fruit, with South Asians and Chinese Canadians first winning the vote, followed by Japanese Canadians in 1949, and First Nations in 1960.
The federal government is finally recognizing Homma, and the local community in Steveston has even named a school after him. Yet the provincial government has never taken responsibility for 1902 or for its substantial role in the uprooting of Japanese Canadians. One wonders when B.C. will step up and provide substance to a 2012 apology that for many seems token at best.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada will unveil a plaque to honour Tomekichi (Tomey) Homma for his role in helping win the right to vote for Asian Canadians. The ceremony will take place at noon on Sunday (December 10) at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre (6688 Southoaks Crescent, Burnaby).
John Price teaches history at the University of Victoria; Grace Eiko Thomson is the past president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians and nominated Homma for recognition.