The 300 or so men descended on the foot of what is now Burrard Street, near a bluff overlooking Burrard Inlet. Treading through the snow, lanterns in hand, chanting the U.S. Civil War Union marching song “John Brown’s Body”, they approached the camp near midnight.
When they arrived, they beat up about 25 of the camp’s residents, labourers who were hired to clear land in the West End, then threw their tents, shanties, and other belongings into a roaring fire. After being ordered to leave the area, the workers “were assisted in no gentle manner”, according to a Vancouver Daily News-Advertiser report the following day. Some terrorized residents ran away barefoot, and others took the six-metre blind leap into the cold inlet. Shortly afterward, a some rioters moved east onto Carrall Street, where they burned and damaged the homes of about 90 residents.
The rioters were white workers afraid that lower-paid Chinese labourers would take their jobs. And, after years of incitement, they’d left a meeting at City Hall, inflamed and prepared to attack the Chinese workers—yet unimpeded by police.
It was the evening of February 24, 1887, only a year after Vancouver’s incorporation. The following morning, in front of where the Sunnyside Hotel once sat, on Water Street at Carrall, they gathered the Chinese residents into wagons—“Some of them were tied together by their pigtails to prevent them escaping,” one eyewitness recalled—and sent them off to New Westminster.
Today, as Vancouver observes the Week of Reconciliation, a statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton stands at the intersection of Water and Carrall streets. He owned a saloon on that spot back then, and it was frequented by workers from the nearby Hastings Mill, where many of the Chinese labourers who were rounded up and forced out worked on a temporary basis after travelling from California and Victoria.
“We want here a white man’s community,” British Columbia’s surveyor general, Benjamin Pearse, wrote two years before the riot, “with civilized habits and religious aspirations, and not a community of ‘Heathen Chinee’ who can never assimilate with us...and who can be of no possible value to a state in any capacity other than that of drawers of water and hewers of wood.”
Vancouver, specifically, heeded his words and established itself as a city that would admit people of certain backgrounds as long as they fulfilled their role as cheap labour. Chinese workers, for instance, were paid one-half to two-thirds the wages of others, and they laboured long hours and often in seasonal work.
With the codifying of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act (and the Chinese head tax, applied until 1924), this unhappy relationship persisted. In addition to exploiting workers, Vancouver’s leaders enforced a hierarchy of citizenry. “Legally, most Chinese had no choice but to remain permanent foreigners and non-voters,” writes Lisa Rose Mar, a University of Maryland history professor, in her 2010 book Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945. “British Columbia did not allow Chinese Canadians to vote. Canada also made it difficult for Chinese immigrants to become naturalized citizens.”
The head tax levied a fee of two years’ wages, or $500, on Chinese immigrants who weren’t diplomats, students, or merchants.
“The head tax was not there to completely dissuade Chinese migration. The intention was to patrol the growth of Chinese communities,” Sid Tan says in an interview with the Georgia Straight. Tan, a Vancouver community organizer who helped found the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, says the effect this had on the families of people like him was immense. His grandfather, for instance, could not bring Tan’s grandmother to Canada because of the prohibitory head tax. “My grandfather was unable for a quarter of a century to unite the family, and you can’t imagine the stress that caused,” he says. “He couldn’t explain that there were laws and that it wasn’t just him.”
Today, temporary migrant workers labour quietly throughout the city. Brought here for short periods with contracts tying them to specific employers, their terms limited by their contracts and by the default legal limit of four years, they work for lower wages, often undertaking the most dangerous work. And despite the work they do, and the taxes they pay, they do not have access to the same services the rest of us enjoy.
“It’s a form of apartheid and segregation,” activist Harsha Walia says in an interview. Walia, author of the upcoming book Undoing Border Imperialism, notes that such workers are denied things that Canadians take for granted. “They don’t have access to things like health care, social housing, child-care services, or EI,” she says. “Some migrant workers, particularly farm workers, pay into EI. So they’re paying into this tax regime but can’t access it. Not only is their cheap labour building the economy of Canada, but they’re essentially living as an underclass.”
Like Chinese labourers in Vancouver’s early history, temporary migrant workers today can’t, for the most part, gain citizenship. The majority will have to leave the country at the end of their contracts.
One block east of Water and Carrall is the intersection of Columbia and Alexander streets. Here, a Squamish First Nation camp sat more than 100 years ago. Its inhabitants called the site luck-luck-ee, meaning “grove of beautiful trees”. Today, it overlooks CRAB Park at Portside, which next spring will feature a memorial pole dedicated to the disproportionately indigenous missing and murdered women of the Downtown Eastside.
From the park, you can see Brockton Point, the easternmost part of Stanley Park. The park’s beauty belies a brutal history. Jean Barman detailed the story in her 2007 book Stanley Park’s Secret: The Forgotten Families of Whoi Whoi, Kanaka Ranch, and Brockton Point. The official tale, or mainstream assumption, is that the idyllic peninsula looks today as it has always appeared: natural and unpopulated. But it wasn’t. There was a large community of aboriginal people who lived there and were displaced starting the year after Vancouver’s incorporation.
The arguments used to displace the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples from their lands throughout present-day Vancouver and its environs were self-benefiting. The 15th-century European-Christian Doctrine of Discovery, for instance, stated that explorers could claim a piece of land as their own if it was unoccupied, a terra nullius, which is Latin for “land belonging to no one”. When settlers realized that some lands were very much occupied, it was revised to refer to land that wasn’t, in their eyes, being used properly.
UBC lecturer Dave Diewert, an antigentrification and social-housing organizer in the Downtown Eastside, says that the doctrine’s principles are very much in use today. “Justifying displacement, in the past and the present, is a certain rhetoric: ‘Those who are displaced are inferior anyway. They’re not using the land properly. They’re in the way of progress, and after all, we know best.’ It’s a continuously patronizing discourse which attempts to legitimize displacement.”
So the past arguments and those used today to displace people—disproportionately indigenous—from the Downtown Eastside are remarkably similar. Blocks with low-income people are dismissively considered empty or improperly used and in need of revitalization. And so continues the push for displacement and dispossession.
This dispossession of Native peoples manifests itself in diverse ways. It’s the Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver, for instance. Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the nongovernmental Reconciliation Canada are currently holding events in Vancouver. The primary intent is to address the residential-school system, which is “one problem of that broader process of dispossession”, as Glen Coulthard, a UBC political-science assistant professor in the First Nations studies program, put it in an interview with the Straight.
It’s a process of being dispossessed of one’s heritage, a way of being, and the power to determine one’s own course and autonomy. And, according to activist Walia, it continues today in ways that are reminiscent of the recent past. “One glaring example of that is that there are currently more indigenous children in foster care and state care than ever were in residential care, and that’s horrific. And the legacy of child apprehension is exactly the same: loss of culture, loss of language, breakdown of families. It’s a form of colonialism and deliberate genocide in terms of the breakdown and attempted assimilation of indigenous families and nations.”
Kwakwaka’wakw chief Bill Wilson said this during a Harry Rankin memorial picnic at the end of August: “What bothers me is it’s still going on today: ‘If only Indian people would start acting like us, we could get along.’ I heard that this morning.” In this light, some are suspicious about reconciliation when it is based on the assumption that abuses are solely artifacts of the past.
“Reconciliation is really problematic from nonindigenous society because it assumes that what we’re dealing with, what needs to be reconciled, is something in the past,” Coulthard, author of an upcoming book titled Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, told the Straight by phone. “What’s wrong when you go about doing that is there is no formal transition from a colonial regime to a noncolonial regime in Canada. It’s been consistent over time.”
The title of Coulthard’s book is a homage to Frantz Fanon, the Martinique psychiatrist and postcolonial thinker who wrote 1952’s Black Skin, White Masks: The Experiences of a Black Man in a White World. Although Coulthard understands and respects the meaning that reconciliation events have for survivors of the residential-school system, who see them as a moving opportunity to tell their stories, he is inspired by Fanon’s critique of recognition in a nonetheless colonialist framework.
“You’re never going to gain the full recognition of your freedom from your oppressor,” Coulthard said. “They will only recognize you to the extent that it serves their own interests. The effect that that recognition being given to you has on the dominated or the colonized is that they come to see that gift of recognition as a form of justice or decolonization itself. You think recognition is actually freedom and decolonization, but it’s really colonization in a new form.”
In a September 11 article published in the online Intercontinental Cry magazine, “Big Oil funds reconciliation in Vancouver”, Khelsilem Rivers, a Squamish community organizer and writer, points out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s events are funded by energy company Kinder Morgan, while Reconciliation Canada is likewise sponsored by energy company TransCanada Corp. Both seek to build pipelines that would go through First Nations lands. By sponsoring these events, Rivers argues, both seek to gain public consent from aboriginal peoples, following a historical tradition of paying off leaders in order to dispossess their people.
“To accept and use money from these companies is outrageous,” Rivers writes. “It is an obvious contradiction: how can the organizers promote reconciliation while giving Big Oil companies a pass when those same companies are directly involved in damaging Indigenous ways of life? This was the exact purpose of Residential Schools. The Residential School system had sought (among many things) to displace Indigenous peoples from our homelands; yet again, these companies are seeking to displace our peoples from our homelands to reap the benefit at our expense.”
As you head south on Main Street, away from downtown, the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts appear, cutting their way through and into the Strathcona area. In 1972, their construction destroyed Hogan’s Alley, Vancouver’s only predominantly black community.
The viaducts were the first part of a larger plan, eventually thwarted, to push a freeway through the area. Concerned residents and activists rallied and fought the freeway, in part because the whole plan was hashed out by city hall—then led by the developer-friendly Non-Partisan Association—in secret. Although the black residents had mostly dispersed by 1972, they’d already begun leaving when the initial plan was revealed in 1967, mainly because the NPA had stopped granting building and development permits there and quit funding basic improvements to roads.
Today, the Vision Vancouver–dominated city council is still heavily influenced by developers. Whereas in the past such interests led to the viaducts’ construction, developers now want them torn down to make room for projects in the False Creek area. In October 2009, councillor Geoff Meggs said, for instance: “No major development around or on the North False Creek lands can go ahead without confronting the viaducts.”
Vancouver writer Wayde Compton made the connection between the past and the near present regarding this city’s downtown in 2010’s After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region: “There is still an inadequate amount of social housing there. Developers and corporations still dictate social policy in the city. And civic governments still rise and fall over issues related to the area: just as the NPA fell in the 1970s, so did it fall in 2002, largely over the issue of what to do about the DTES.”
As you move toward False Creek, the viaducts loom above. Here, at the eastern edge of the small inlet, just next to Science World, the All Nations Canoe Gathering took place on the morning of September 17. The cedar canoes came from Vanier Park to Science World, opening the Week of Reconciliation on Coast Salish lands.
Near the water, some other words by Compton come to mind. Inspired by poet Kamau Brathwaite, he wrote in Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature about a different way to understand history. There’s “a way of seeing history as a palimpsest, where generations overlap generations, and eras wash over eras like a tide on a stretch of beach”.
“We do not improve upon the past,” he continued, invoking a more cyclical understanding of time’s arrow than we may be used to, “but are ourselves versions of the past.”
The water’s stillness makes it difficult to tell where the landscape ends and the reflection begins.