As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, another anniversary must not go overlooked. May 14, 2017 marks 70 years since the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, the only law in Canadian history to bar a specific ethnic group from coming to Canada.
Today, roughly 1.5 million people of Chinese descent live in Canada. Although most arrived over the past two decades, the first significant wave began in the 19th century. Chinese migrants came to Canada during the 1850s for the gold rush in British Columbia’s lower Fraser Valley. Chinese prospectors earned little money because they were prohibited from working in mines until others had moved on from them.
Another wave of Chinese migrants came between 1881 and 1885 to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were exposed to harsh weather conditions and were tasked with the most dangerous and backbreaking jobs of building bridges over valleys and digging tunnels through mountains. These conditions led to 600 deaths, among the more than 15,000 Chinese labourers.
After the railroad was completed in 1885, many Chinese labourers remained in the country. Some headed for the prairies and eastern Canada, but most stayed in B.C.
Once Chinese labour was no longer needed, the government passed laws to limit and then prohibit Chinese immigration. In 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government enacted the Chinese Immigration Act, which imposed a $50 head tax (more than $1,000 in today’s dollars) on all Chinese immigrants.
The head tax created poverty and fractured families. The majority of Chinese immigrants were men who came to the country to find work. The costly head tax forced them to leave their wives and children behind. Families that paid the fee would spend years paying off the outstanding debt.
On July 1, 1923, the federal government implemented the Chinese Immigration Act, banning Chinese immigration altogether. Other policies further restricted their ability to vote, hold public office, or practice law or medicine. Municipalities enacted additional policies. For instance, Vancouver barred Chinese from swimming in public pools.
Since the Chinese Immigration Act took effect the same day as the anniversary of Confederation, this day became known as “Humiliation Day” among Chinese-Canadians. In protest, some Chinese-Canadians closed their businesses and boycotted Dominion Day (the precursor to Canada Day) celebrations every July 1 until it was repealed. This community felt compelled to reject the nation’s birthday.
It was not until 1947 that the federal government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act, in large part due to the lobbying efforts of activists from across Canada, including lawyer Kew Doc Yip. There was also broader public support for the repeal, as a result of Chinese-Canadians’ significant contribution to the Second World War effort. However, restrictions on Chinese immigration and other discriminatory laws remained in place.
In the House of Commons that year, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King said Canada had the right to determine who it considers “desirable future citizens.” “Large-scale migration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population,” he said.
It took another 20 years for this attitude to change. In 1967, Canada introduced a points-based policy that gave Chinese equal opportunity to immigrate to Canada. It allowed immigrants to apply based on education and skills. By the 1980s, Chinese immigration was on the rise, enhancing the status of Chinese communities across the country.
Finally, on June 22, 2006, the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued a formal apology for the Chinese Immigration Act. It was an important step towards reconciliation. It reaffirmed to Chinese-Canadians that they are full and equal members of Canadian society and that their contributions were valuable to Canada’s development.
Lillian Eva Dyck, Victor Oh and Yuen Pau Woo are Canadian senators of Chinese descent.