Vancouver to formally apologize for history of discrimination against Chinese Canadians

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      The City of Vancouver will officially apologize for its role in institutionalizing racism against citizens of Chinese descent.

      Mayor Gregor Robertson will deliver the apology in English for former discriminatory regulations, policies, and legislation at a special council meeting at the Chinese Cultural Centre on April 22, as part of a Chinatown Culture Day event. Former city councillors Bill Yee and Maggie Ip will read out the apology in Chinese languages.

      "In order to move forward, we must first acknowledge the harm that was committed and how this unfortunate chapter in Vancouver's history continues to impact the lives of Chinese Canadians," Robertson stated in a news release.

      The event will include a range of community speakers from various generations, including Hilbert Yiu, the president of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (founded in 1895).

      Vancouver city council voted unanimously in 2014 to develop a formal apology for historical discrimination against Chinese Canadians.

      The City of Vancouver established an advisory group in 2016, consisting of Chinese and non-Chinese members, to develop the formal apology, which was approved in November 2017.

      The advisory group's report details several examples of past discrimination against Chinese Canadians.

      Chinese citizens were not allowed to vote between 1886 (the year the city was incorporated) and 1948, thereby preventing Chinese citizens from running for public office and owning properties in specific areas of the city.

      Citizens of Chinese descent were also forbidden from working in professional fields such as law, medicine, banking, and retail; were prohibited from civic employment from 1890 to 1952; and were prevented from working in any liquor-licensed premises. Anti-Chinese clauses in city contracts restricted Chinese access to business and employment.

      The City of Vancouver lobbied the federal government to adopt legislation to prevent Chinese immigration to Canada, including the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and later repeatedly requested increases for the Head Tax.

      The anti-Asian riots of 1887 and 1907, which targeted Chinatown and Japantown, occurred with the awareness or attendance of the mayor and aldermen.

      Chinatown buildings were boarded up following an anti-Asian riot in 1907.
      Vancouver Public Library

      The report did cite a few examples of non-Chinese politicians and citizens who opposed Sinophobic measures.

      In 1914, city solicitor John Gilmour Hay opposed a proposal to remove students of Chinese and Japanese descent from schools.

      In 1923, city solicitor Edward F. Jones objected to a proposed restriction of Chinese businesses to specific areas of the city, and he thereby prevented the discriminatory measure from being passed.

      Helena Gutteridge, the first woman to be elected to city council in 1937, supported city solicitor James B. Williams in opposing the city's policy in restricting trade licenses to "Orientals".

      In 1937, when the city enforced a 1919 municipal bylaw that forbade Chinese restaurants from employing "white waitresses", women organized a protest march outside city hall but were disregarded and consequently lost their jobs.

      In 1949, the Vancouver Trade Council urged city council to restore voting rights for Chinese citizens.

      Vancouver alderperson Helena Gutteridge opposed discrimination against Chinese residents after being elected in 1937.

      Formal apologies have previously been issued to Chinese Canadians at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels.

      The City of New Westminster was the first B.C. municipality to formally apologize to Canadians of Chinese descent in 2010.

      The provincial government issued a formal apology, delivered by then-premier Christy Clark, in 2014. However, the Chinese Canadian National Council declined the apology.

      The federal government began issuing Head Tax redress in 2006 after a formal apology delivered by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

      The city previously delivered a formal apology in 2013 for its role in the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, following a provincial apology in 2012 and a federal apology in 1988. 

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.