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One Hundredth Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Inquiry--Debate Continued

March 28, 2023

Hon. Paula Simons [ + ]

I’m honoured to rise today to speak to Senator Woo’s inquiry which calls our attention to the enduring legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed into law on July 1, 1923, one hundred years ago.

The act was designed by the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King. It put an end to the old head tax system, and instead, slammed the door on Chinese immigration entirely.

The rules were strict. Only four classes of Chinese people were allowed entry: diplomats and government representatives; children who had been born in Canada but left the country for educational purposes, but only if they returned in less than two years; students who were attending university or college; and, in rare circumstances, merchants who had received special status from the Minister of Immigration and Colonization.

Ships that brought Chinese immigrants to Canada were only allowed to carry one Chinese person for every 250 tonnes of total ship weight. Those who’d been born here all had to register and carry photo identification.

The language of the 1923 act empowered the police to detain and arrest, without a warrant, any person of Chinese origin or descent whom they suspected of having entered the country illegally. Those who were arrested were detained until they could provide legal proof that they were allowed to be in Canada. Those who could not faced deportation.

The result, by some calculations: Fewer than 50 people, and according to some sources as few as 15, were able to emigrate from China to Canada between 1923 and 1947.

To put things in perspective, in 1921, Canada had admitted 2,707 immigrants from China. In 1924, we admitted just three, and by 1925, just one.

In his original speech last month, Senator Woo suggested that one of the reasons that the Exclusion Act has not received as much attention as the head tax may be because most of its victims were hypothetical, the immigrants who might have come here if only they had been allowed.

But if I may be allowed to disagree with my respected friend and colleague, that’s not quite true. The primary and very real victims of the Exclusion Act of 1923 were the wives and children still in China, who were not allowed to travel here to be reunited with their husbands and fathers. And since an estimated 80 per cent of Chinese-Canadian men had spouses and families in China, there were plenty of stranded families.

Because of the difficulty and expense of travel — made all the more expensive by the head tax — it had been common practice for Chinese men to come to places such as Alberta and British Columbia to establish themselves, leaving their wives and families behind, hoping to bring them to Canada later. Now that door was slammed shut.

By 1931, the ratio of Chinese men to women in Toronto was 15 to 1. In Calgary, there were 12 Chinese men for every one woman. In Vancouver, there were 11 times as many Chinese men as Chinese women.

Families were, in many cases, permanently separated, and family ties forever sundered.

Wives left behind in China often suffered from social stigma and cultural isolation. Meanwhile, the lonely bachelors in Canada often turned to gambling houses and brothels to pass the time, to the distress of Chinese community leaders. The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver protested that the lack of women and family ties in their communities led to “an undisciplined indulgence in bad habits and entertainment.”

The result, of course, was to fuel racist beliefs that the Chinese themselves were culturally immoral, even though such “bad habits” were the logical result of creating an artificial and segregated bachelor society.

Eventually, the draconian law’s natural consequences became evident. The Chinese population of Canada started to fall dramatically. In 1931, there were 11,592 Chinese people living in Vancouver. By 1941, the population had plummeted to 5,973.

That’s all the more shocking and disturbing when you think that anyone who went back to China in that 10-year period was entering an active war zone, a country subject to Japanese occupation.

Between 1921 and 1951, Canada’s overall Chinese population dropped by 25 per cent. That was most assuredly a feature — and not a bug — of the Exclusion Act. It was designed by the racist Mackenzie King government not just to keep Chinese immigrants from coming in, but to drive those who were already here back out again.

It was not only Chinese Canadians, and would-be Chinese Canadians, who suffered as a result of the Exclusion Act. Canada, too, paid for its xenophobia and its bigotry by losing out on the talent and drive of those who were denied entry.

In this context, I think it’s illustrative to look at some of the extraordinary accomplishments of Chinese Canadians who came of age during the very time the Exclusion Act was in place.

Dr. Victoria Chung was born in 1897 in Victoria, the city which gave her her name. She was the first person of Chinese-Canadian descent to become a doctor — not just the first female physician, but the first Chinese-Canadian doctor, period.

In 1923, the year the Exclusion Act was passed, the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Society sponsored Chung to go to China to work at a hospital there. But when she tried to come back to Canada, she was told she had been in China too long and was ineligible to live in the country of her own birth. Her parents made the choice to leave Canada to come be with her, forfeiting their right to return to the country where they had lived for decades. Dr. Chung could have fled China when the Japanese invaded. Instead, she continued to work as a physician and missionary through the war and the Chinese Revolution.

Peter Wing was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, in 1914. A successful businessman, he became the youngest member of the Kamloops Board of Trade in 1934. He went on to serve as the Mayor of Kamloops for three terms, making him the first Chinese Canadian to serve as mayor in Canada and, indeed, the first person of Chinese descent to be elected mayor anywhere in North America.

George Ho Lem was born in Calgary in 1918. His mother, Mary, was the first recorded Chinese-Canadian woman to live in that city. He was a dry cleaner, a restaurateur and a successful horse breeder who won two Alberta Derbies. He was a director of the Calgary Stampede board for 18 years. He was elected a Calgary alderman in 1959 and then went on to become the first Chinese Canadian elected to the Alberta legislature.

Gretta Wong Grant was born in London, Ontario, in 1921. In 1946, the year before the Chinese Exclusion Act ended, she was called to the bar in Toronto as Canada’s first Chinese-Canadian female lawyer. A graduate of Osgoode Hall, she went on to serve as London’s Assistant City Solicitor, the Director of Legal Aid, London, and as the first woman to head her local bar association. But then Gretta’s whole family was extraordinary. She may have been the duffer. Her two older sisters were doctors who had attended medical school at the University of Western Ontario, and her younger sister earned a PhD in biochemistry.

Douglas Jung was born in Victoria in 1924. He was 20 when he volunteered to serve in the Canadian Army among a group of 13 Chinese Canadians who volunteered for Operation Oblivion, a British Special Operations Executive mission to send secret agents into Japanese-occupied China to serve as spies and saboteurs.

After the war, Jung attended law school and become a successful lawyer. In 1957, 10 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act ended, he was elected as Canada’s first Chinese-Canadian member of Parliament.

Norman Kwong was born in Calgary in 1929 and grew up during the ugliest years of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but in 1948, at the age of 18, he began an extraordinary career in football. He played for the Calgary Stampeders for three years, becoming the first Chinese-Canadian player in the Canadian Football League, the CFL, and the youngest to win a Grey Cup. He spent 10 more glorious years playing for Edmonton, winning three more Grey Cups and earning the nickname “the China Clipper.” He twice won the Schenley Award for the most outstanding Canadian player in the league, and in 1955, he was named Canada’s male athlete of the year. He then went on to a successful career in business and became a co-owner of the Calgary Flames, making him the first — and perhaps the only — person to win both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. After years of dedicated public service, he was named Lieutenant Governor of Alberta in 2005, filling the role with distinction and huge public popularity.

I could go on telling such stories, but I think these few examples illustrate my point. Just think of the extraordinary obstacles all those people had to overcome. Now imagine what we as Canadians lost out on with our self-sabotaging racism, all the talent and drive we turned away or drove away.

Now, we need to be extremely careful that we don’t repeat the mistakes of our past and let prejudice and paranoia cloud our judgment or lead us to question the patriotism and loyalty of Canadians based on ethnic origin. Let it be said: Serious, well‑founded allegations of interference by the Chinese government into provincial or federal Canadian politics should be properly, thoroughly and swiftly investigated. If and when they are substantiated, we must take firm action to safeguard the integrity of our elections and we should not be naive about the possibility of other nations’ agendas.

Let us be extraordinarily careful not to make lazy, dangerous assumptions about the loyalties of tens of thousands of Chinese Canadians. Asian Canadians have already suffered through ugly racism prompted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While those racist attacks are abating, it would be tragic indeed if ethnic Chinese Canadians — including politicians — were smeared as a result of anonymous allegations.

We cannot and should not allow foreign governments or foreign actors to influence our elections, whether that influence comes from Russia, China, the United States, India or elsewhere. We must take credible reports of such foreign influence seriously. In our haste to protect our democracy, we must not sacrifice our own core democratic values. I fear that some of the increasingly heated rhetoric around this issue, even if it’s well intended, is already having the result not just of defaming specific Chinese Canadians in public life but also of fuelling a corrosive suspicion of Chinese Canadians more broadly. There is nothing our various adversaries and agent provocateurs would like more than to sow suspicion and discord amongst Canadians, to see us turn on one another, to foster disunity when we most need to be united. Let us not make it easy for them.

As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of a dark and destructive chapter in our history, let us be sure to learn from our past, and let’s be sure that we remember and celebrate the extraordinary legacy of the historical Chinese Canadians who have enriched our nation and the accomplishments and leadership of the Chinese Canadians today who have given so much back to this country that we all cherish. Thank you. Hiy hiy.

Would you take a question, Senator Simons?

Senator Simons [ + ]

I would be delighted to take a question.

I would be remiss in not asking if you knew that, in fact, Gretta Wong, whom you mentioned, has a direct link back to this chamber.

Senator Simons [ + ]

I did not know that. Would you care to enlighten us on that link?

I’m pleased to add that Gretta Wong, in addition to opening some of the first Chinese-Canadian legal clinics in this country, largely because she was not provided with other opportunities and provided legal aid, is also the grandmother of my Director of Parliamentary Affairs, Emily Grant, and the great-grandmother to Emily’s daughter, Isabel Gretta.

Senator Simons [ + ]

I did not know that.

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