Adrian Dix: B.C. must reconcile with its past official racism against Chinese Canadians

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      “The people of Canada want to have a white country.” 

      — Sir Wilfrid Laurier, former prime minister of Canada

      “British Columbia shall be a white man’s province.”

      — Sir Richard MacBride, former premier of B.C.

      A “White Man’s Province” was more than a slogan, a political excess. It was a primary feature of B.C. government policy for seven decades after B.C. joined Canada in 1871, with Chinese Canadians a constant target of hostile action by their provincial government and legislature. British Columbia passed an avalanche of discriminatory legislation in this period—a record not matched in any other Canadian province.

      Over a thousand Chinese Canadians brought here as “cheap labour” died in the construction of our national railway. Immigration was almost solely male.

      By 1921, 50 years after B.C. joined Confederation, there were 18 Chinese Canadian men for every one Chinese Canadian woman. Racist policies against Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians were a feature of national policy, notably the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was always in British Columbia where official racism was most strongly supported and promoted.

      In both Canada and B.C., there were two strands of action in official policy toward Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadians and South Asian Canadians) at times in conflict with one another, while both resting on an ideology of white superiority. The first sought benefits in a supply of cheap labor made up of noncitizens with few if any rights. The second feared the consequences of such immigration on wages and opportunities. 

      In this context, the individual and community contribution of Chinese Canadians throughout B.C.’s history is all the more extraordinary.

      This year, there will an opportunity for the B.C. legislature and the province to reconcile itself with these historical wrongs toward Chinese Canadians. The government is proposing that a formal apology be made by the legislature. A consultation about the apology is underway, mostly involving Chinese-Canadian groups.

      The government’s idea for an apology had its genesis in the Liberal “quick wins” scandal with the premier’s office suggesting that such apologies would benefit the premier politically and personally. Apologies represent transactional politics for the premier.

      However, such cynicism must not sully what could be an important moment for our province. An apology should proceed but it is not sufficient.

      What is also required is reconciliation, empathy, and a lasting legacy that will promote understanding for all British Columbians, particularly young people. As part of this effort, I have worked to prepare some material that should be widely circulated in B.C. that details the extent of official and legal discrimination against Chinese Canadians in our province.

      After all, to apologize, we all need to understand what we are sorry for and then to reconcile ourselves to that history.

      Anti-Chinese Laws in B.C.

      With the remarkable help of the talented staff at the B.C. Legislative Library, I have reviewed the legislative record in B.C. The result reveals the depth of the legacy in B.C. In the coming week, I will be sharing the results of this work with British Columbians.

      What is striking is the sheer volume of racist, discriminatory legislation against Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadian and South Asians)—89 separate bills and 49 resolutions of the B.C. legislature passed from 1872 to 1928, seven reports, and two resolutions from the Committee of Supply authorizing expenditure. This does not include the numerous motions, questions, and efforts by private members to propose further laws. The intent was to fulfill the vision of a “White Man’s Province”; and this pursuit was only tempered by the desire of industry to have access to cheap and vulnerable labour, a view entirely unchallenged in the legislature until the arrival of the CCF in the 1930s.

      What did this avalanche of legislative activity address? Of the 89 discriminatory bills, 58 addressed labour and employment, 12 economic and social rights, 10 voting rights, nine immigration issues, and one vital statistics. Of the 49 motions, 16 dealt with immigration, 12 labour and employment, eight the Chinese Head Tax, six economic rights and taxes, five health, and two voting rights.

      The legislation was consistently derogatory in tone, reflecting the belief of B.C. leaders that white men were superior, the fear of miscegenation, and the scapegoating of a portion of the population. While the legislation was reflective of the public mood and the fears of those faced with the threat of loss of their jobs to lower-paid workers without rights, politicians also led public opinion, stirring the issue up again and again for the benefit of successive governments—Liberal and Conservative alike.

      Under the BNA Act, the federal government and the Lieutenant Governor have the power to disallow provincial legislation—a power that has fallen into disuse. Using this power between 1878 and 1921, Ottawa disallowed 24 anti-Chinese bills including all of the B.C.-voted statutes on immigration. The purpose of the federal action was not to protect human rights. Rather, it was to safeguard federal jurisdiction and ensure ready access to cheap labour.

      Or in the words of our first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, “It is better to have Chinese labour than no labour at all… At any moment when the Legislature of Canada chooses, it can shut down the gate and say, no more immigrants shall come here from China; and those in the country at the time will rapidly disappear and therefore there is no fear of permanent degradation by a mongrel race.”

      What is interesting in assessing the actions of the B.C. legislature is the determined effort to pass legislation that MLAs and B.C. governments understood would be disallowed in order to express anti-Chinese sentiment. This was, in effect, a legislative riot, an apt corollary to the actual anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese race riots of 1907.

      Even in the mid 1920s, after Chinese Head Tax, the Exclusion Acts, second-class status, no right to vote, dozens of laws barring Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadians and South Asian Canadians) from many jobs, the public service, and working on public works, the B.C. legislature was not satisfied in its pursuit of anti-Chinese initiatives.

      In 1927, the legislature commissioned a major report on “Oriental Activities in the Province”, in part to investigate “whether legislation can be enacted to prevent Chinese and Japanese Canadians from owning, selling, leasing or renting land in B.C.”

      A year later based on the report, the legislature passed a lengthy motion—vicious in tone—proposing among other things the repatriation of the majority “of the Chinese and the Japanese residing in B.C. to the countries of their respective origins”.

      The motion passed unanimously.

      Historical Apology and Reconciliation

      On the surface, there seems to be great distance between these events and the present-day B.C. The Parliament of Canada enacted a new law establishing full citizenship rights for Chinese Canadians in 1947. It was not until 1967 that remaining vestiges of “race selection” were removed from Canada’s Immigration Act.

      The lasting impact of decades of official discrimination lived on however, in the lives of those affected and their families to the present day.

      That said, B.C.'s prosperity has been generated to a great extent by an openness to immigration and the path of immigration to citizenship.

      Particularly in schools and for young people, there is a vibrant diversity that is a huge advantage for our economy and society.

      Some will argue therefore that it is better to live outside of history, to not revisit past wrongs through an official apology and a genuine effort at reconciliation. We should let the past be the past.

      Why apologize? Why reconcile ourselves to history? Can we take responsibilities for mistakes or crimes of past generations? These are good questions.

      Firstly, an apology is due, to the families directly affected not only by the laws themselves but for the climate of hostility and hatred they reflected. Real losses were felt. Families destroyed. However, any apology will just be words unless it leads to action—for the families affected and a legacy and process of reconciliation that involves lasting understanding.

      The federal government’s apology and compensation (a fraction of the value of the tax) for the Chinese Head Tax is of value, but does not address B.C.’s vast legacy of discriminatory laws.

      Secondly, this history belongs to us—it is ours. British Columbia is what it is today because of it. Our history of official racism, the “white man’s province” influences our present as much as past laws in other jurisdiction do from Alabama to Cape Town. However, despite much of the progress we have made, the issues involved continue and will continue to affect us. It lives with us and in us, and recognizing this is not just important for politicians and Chinese Canadian but the whole society.

      Simply, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to become a better province if we don’t understand who we are.

      Thirdly, apologies can be of great value as a tool of education. But this is only the case if they result in an ongoing legacy of reconciliation.

      Two years ago, the provincial legislature passed a formal apology to Japanese Canadians. Naomi Yamamoto, the Liberal MLA for North Vancouver Lonsdale, moved the motion and gave a great speech. I spoke as well in support of her motion, which was passed unanimously. Afterward, there was a reception in the minister’s office. For those small number who participated, it was a very moving experience, one I am proud to have played a small role in.

      However, there was no follow-up. The premier did not participate or show up in the House or at the reception. And there was no lasting legacy, no learning, very few British Columbians would have heard that it happened.

      We can and must do better.

      There are lessons in Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa,  and in our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada addressing First Nations and residential schools about the opportunities for this path.

      The challenge in facing Canada’s legacy with First Nations is of immense and ongoing proportion. Our country and province is founded by this imperialist legacy—a legacy through which all Canadian injustices must be viewed. In spite of the immensity of the challenge, the TRC is showing that progress can be made.

      Finally, there is this. We are reliving some of this history in the present time.

      At its core, Canada and B.C.’s policies toward Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians and South Asians, were to deny any path to citizenship for workers brought to our country to work. In the present day, a majority of immigrants to Canada are Temporary Foreign Workers, who are denied, should they wish it, any path to citizenship. TFWs regularly work under threat of deportation, a fact that undermines the enforcement of even basic employment standards.

      In a time of growing inequality, when B.C. has failed to adequately train skilled workers, the importation of workers will inevitably increase costs and create resentments in our province, just as in the past.

      Our society and economy has been most effective when laws are applied equally, ensuring fair treatment to all workers and fair competition. And it has worked most effectively when people who come to B.C. and Canada are allowed to become citizens. This is a lesson that history teaches us. Our racist legacy targeted Chinese Canadians and stunted our growth as a province. Learning this lesson will help us in our present circumstance.

      The B.C. NDP will fully participate in working toward an apology and a process of reconciliation. Presenting this important work on B.C.’s legislative history—138 laws and motions and much more—to British Columbians, especially young people, will contribute to it by ensuring a fuller understanding of history. This process can and should involve all citizens who might want to engage and learn.

      The goal must be to ensure that the apology is heard, developed with and received by Chinese Canadians, and by those families directly affected. And that we together give further value to the apology by establishing a real lasting legacy founded on reconciliation and education.

      Adrian Dix is leader of the official Opposition and MLA for Vancouver Kingsway.



      Ben Sili

      Jan 5, 2014 at 8:43pm

      Yep, now you know why you did not get the job Adrian...

      Dana Larsen

      Jan 5, 2014 at 10:38pm

      Nice article, but why no mention of how Canada's first anti-opium laws were passed in an effort to get rid of the Chinese from BC? Canada's whole so-called "war on drugs" was begun in an attempt to remove Chinese men from the labour pool.

      In the early 1900s, newspapers, women's groups, labour unions and church congregations were all campaigning against the "Yellow Peril." The "Chinese drug evil" became a favorite topic for editorials and cartoonists. Politicians held anti-chinese, anti-opium rallies with public burnings of opium and opium pipes.

      The Opium Narcotic Act of 1908, Canada's first anti-drug law, was introduced by the Minister of Labour, showing that it was really a law to protect white workers by excluding and deporting the Chinese.

      The new law banned the import, manufacture and sale of opiates for "non-medical" purposes. Opium was typically smoked by Chinese, which the law considered non-medical, while whites used it in "medical" tinctures and extracts which remained legal.

      The Opium Narcotic Act of 1908 was designed purely to punish Chinese people and force them out of the country. There was no scientific, medical or social research done before passing Canada's first anti-drug law.

      Three years later, MacKenzie King was Minister of Labour, and he passed a stricter new law called the Opium and Drug Act. This law made simple use and possession a crime. It also expanded police powers of search and seizure, a trend which has continued to this day.

      Let's not just apologize for past racism against the Chinese, let's get rid of the modern artefact of that racist time, and end Canada's war on drugs.

      We can start right here in BC, by stopping arrests for marijuana possession and working towards legalization. Hopefully we won't have to wait as long for that change to happen as the Chinese have waited for their apology.

      Sid Tan

      Jan 6, 2014 at 2:48am

      The Province of British Columbia and Legislature should be clear who they are apologizing to as there are surviving seniors affected by Chinese head-tax and exclusion. For many of these elderly Canadians, redress for targeted racist laws has been a three decade long struggle. Surviving affected elderly seniors must be the priority of the BC Government all party apology.

      It's clear an apology should admit the wrong doing and injustice, be redemptive to the giver, healing to receiver and make best efforts for ample measure of restorative justice. The restorative justice part becomes complex and confusing as there are no “financial considerations” in the apology. Yet you could say the apology is all about financial considerations.

      Apologies can be “quick wins” not only politically. Here it can be seen as currying favour from trade partners. In the recent past, the rising economy of Japan led US President Ronald Reagan to redress Japanese Americans for loss of liberties and property during the Second World War. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney moved lockstep a few years later with redress to Japanese Canadians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized when his government took an issue of justice and honour for pioneer Chinese families and turned it into vote pandering and photo ops.

      My feeling is the Christy Clark government has recognized this. International Trade Minister Teresa Wat is also the Multiculturalism Minister and responsible for moving forward the apology. Interestingly, the BC treasury has been unjustly enriched by $8.5-million in head-taxes collected. It seems the government message to its trading partners and British Columbians in this apology is that in BC you can profit from racism and keep the proceeds.

      No amount of money can atone for the suffering and hardship of our affected elderly seniors. The BC Government can make a meaningful and symbolic gesture of returning the $8.5-million in unjust tax to those families who paid it. It is these families who should determine and lead legacy initiatives from the apology. What better legacy can there be than a just and honourable redress?

      It would be cynical to pre-judge the BC government with offering another empty political apology. Nevertheless, it is good that the power of an apology rests with the receiver.


      Jan 6, 2014 at 11:57am

      " establishing a real lasting legacy founded on reconciliation and education.

      Oh ya and I guess in hindsight using the colour yellow on our scarves wasn't the best optics vilifying the most prominent Chinese-Canadian member of our Caucus for thinking the same thing as everyone else in the province outside a tiny cabal running my party. We pledge to sorta not use 'dog whistles' in the future and not because it's just a bad political strategy but because it's morally wrong."

      Andrian "it's not pandering because I am not Liberal and there is no election" Dix


      Jan 6, 2014 at 12:50pm

      Adrian needs to let BC politicians focus on creating a better environment for business development in order to stop the bleeding of jobs that happened last year. This is not the time for pandering to the Chinese.


      Jan 6, 2014 at 1:13pm

      This is a new day and I don't see this in today's BC. We have to stop nursing past grudges, and live in the now. It's time people let go of past wrongs that didn't even happen to them personally and honor their relations that were wronged by being thankful that what those endured in the past allows them to be here today and living free of that same injustice. You can't bee free of the past if you don't let go of the grudges.

      400 ppm

      Jan 6, 2014 at 6:42pm

      “British Columbia shall be a right of centre province.”

      --The People of BC

      David Dickinson

      Jan 6, 2014 at 6:45pm

      We should all be very concerned in 2014 about systemic discrimination against Chinese Canadians, who are treated like "second-class citizens" in Canada. The evidence: statistics show that Chinese Canadian children are much less likely to graduate from Grade 12 and much less likely to earn a university degree than non-Chinese Canadian children; that the average earnings of Chinese Canadians are much lower than non-Chinese Canadians; that the life expectancy of Chinese Canadians is much less than non-Chinese Canadians; that Chinese Canadians get sick a lot more often than everyone else; and, most important of all, that compared to any other ethnic group, Chinese Canadians are far more likely to face racial profiling, be imprisoned, and receive far harsher sentences than non-Chinese Canadians.

      In my respectful view, discrimination against Chinese Canadians deserves the attention and $ from government commensurate with the actual inequality they face, as revealed by statistics. And remember, unlike two-face political wannabes, statistics don't lie!

      Next, I look forward to Adrian Dix's commentary on how to fight child poverty in the British Properties...

      Arthur Vandelay

      Jan 6, 2014 at 10:47pm

      Why do we insist on applying 2014 morality to actions of 100 years prior? If we'd forced these people to come here against their will then perhaps they may have a point. Short of this, let's express some official regret that our forefathers were only as educated and cosmopolitan as the world was at that time in history and drive on.

      This is Canada

      Jan 7, 2014 at 10:40pm

      Way to twist around Laurier's views on Oriental immigration and make him look like the big, bad white. If you read the October 26, 1908 edition of the British Colonist newspaper, you will see how pro-Oriental immigration Sir Wilfred Laurier was. You'll also see that the white population's primary concern with Oriental immigration was job competition. Here's an excerpt from the article.