mid-19th to early 20th centuries, British Columbia was in a period of
economic explosion. Those who were willing to work hard could find
many opportunities. At this time, gold was found in British Columbia
and Canada became dependent on workers to finish making the
transcontinental railway. Many lumbering, coal mining and fishing
business were not experiencing enough growth to match the needs of
the society. This portrayed Canada as a place of opportunity and
settlement for Asians whose homelands were becoming overcrowded.
Sadly, the early pioneer years were extremely difficult for Asian
immigrants due to the extensive racism and barriers keeping them from
full participation of the Canadian life. It is through these
hardships and sacrifices that the birth of many vibrant communities
became possible. The Asian-Canadian pioneers are unforgettable and
their legacies sculpt an important time in Canadian history.
Chinese people came in the mid-1800s to take advantage of the
opportunities brought on by the discovery of gold. The majority of
the early Chinese settlers were uneducated, unskilled and unmarried
men who were farmers or laborers looking for a better life. Many
early Chinese settlers of the 19th century originated from Guangdong
and Fujian, two coastal provinces of China. Still, most of the
Chinese who came to British Columbia in the 1850s and 1860s came
straight from California because the gold rush in California was
coming close to an end as the rush was just beginning in Canada.
There were two
major gold rushes in British Columbia in the mid-1800s that attracted
the Chinese. News of the Fraser River gold discovery spread and the
first group of Chinese arrived in Canada on July 28, 1858, in
Victoria, British Columbia. Most of these first arrivals were
temporary workers, called sojourners, rather than settlers. Their
historical arrival marked the establishment of a continuous Chinese
community in Canada. While the Fraser Gold Rush is the one that drew
Chinese north, it was during the Cariboo Gold Rush that the first
Chinese community, called The Hong Shun Tang, was established in
Canada in the gold mining town of Barkerville.
In the 1860s,
Barkerville was a booming town. Thousands of prospectors came to the
town, many of them from the U.S. At the peak of the gold rush, there
were as many as 5,000 Chinese living in Barkerville. Unfortunately,
the Chinese were not allowed to prospect in areas other than
abandoned sites. This was due to discrimination towards Asians at
that time. On account of this fact, the Chinese did not make the same
fortunes as the whites did. Nonetheless, the Chinese still managed to
find a way to thrive as a community. They provided many services to
as many as 20,000 prospectors that came into the Barkerville region
in the 1860s.
Between 1860 and
1870, besides mining, Chinese pioneers also worked on many other
projects in British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Some of the jobs
included the erection of telegraph poles, the construction of the
607-kilometers Caribou Wagon Road and the digging of canals and
reclaiming of wastelands. The Chinese were major contributors to the
development of Canadian society, but were never recognized as such.
facing many daily hardships, they did not forget their families in
China and continued to send money back faithfully. On the other side
of the ocean, the families at home also shared the same dreams as
those in Canada. Like most new immigrants, many Chinese dreamed of
some day returning to their native land and reuniting with their
families. Others dreamed that one-day they would call Canada their
Hoping to make
Canada their new home, many Chinese stayed once the Gold Rush was
over. For a while, life was good. The Chinese started import
businesses and worked as merchants and built a strong community in
the city. Victoria became the first permanent Chinese settlement in
Canada. By the end of the 1860s, there was approximately 7000 Chinese
living in British Columbia.
While the gold
rush was going on in British Columbia, thousands of Chinese were also
working on a transcontinental railway in the U.S. Eventually, the
U.S. started closing its doors to the Chinese. As this was happening,
Canada encouraged thousands of Chinese to make their way north and
work on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In 1871, British
Columbia agreed to join Canada on the completion of the Canadian
Pacific Railway, which would link British Columbia to the rest of
Canada. Even before construction of the Railway started, the citizens
of British Columbia were afraid that jobs would all be taken over by
the Chinese. Because of this, a motion was passed by the BC
Legislative Assembly to prevent the Chinese from working on
Government projects. As anti-Chinese feelings grew, Andrew Onderdonk,
the contractor of the CPR, promised that he would give whites
preference over the Chinese. In the end, white workers were
unreliable and he was forced to hire Chinese laborers. The building
company quickly realized that a lot of money could be saved if they
employed Chinese immigrants at less than half the wages normally paid
to whites. Many Chinese where lured by promises of nice wages and
return passages to China. In the end, well over half the railway
workers where Chinese. In total, around 15,700 Chinese were
recruited. Unfortunately, when the railway was finished, the promises
were not kept and about 5000 Chinese who had hoped to return to China
were unable to.
This time in
Chinese-Canadian history was a tragic one. Hundreds of Chinese died
while working on the CPR. It is estimated that at least four Chinese
died for every mile of track laid. Many Chinese workers died from
exhaustion that came from hard work and long walks between sites.
Some perished in rock explosions or were buried in collapsed tunnels.
Many others were drowned in the river due to the collapse of
unfinished bridges. Then the Canadian winter brought another
dimension of hardships to the workers. Arriving from a warm climate,
none of the Chinese workers were ready for the severe winter of
British Columbia. There were few medical facilities and many died
from scurvy. The dead were not buried either, instead, they were
simply left beside the tracks and covered with rocks and dirt. There
is a famous photo of the driving of the Last Spike of the Canadian
Pacific Railway. Ironically, there is not a single Chinese face in
the photo even though the contribution of the Chinese was tremendous
and the railway would not have been completed without their hard work
after the CPR was completed in 1885, the Chinese were unwelcome in
the province. From that time on, the government made it increasingly
hard for Chinese to immigrant. Those who decided to stay in Canada
faced growing racism. Asian children were discouraged from attending
school, professional jobs were closed to all Asians, the right to
vote was denied to them, and economic problems were blamed on their
willingness to work harder for less money. Because of the
discrimination and the barring of opportunities, both the Chinese and
Japanese formed there own ethnic enclaves where they could support
one another financially and emotionally and where their language and
cultures could safely be expressed.
In 1877, the
first Japanese immigrants, called Issei, began to come to Canada.
Most that came were young men who were products of poor and
overcrowded fishing and farming villages from the islands of Kyushu
and Honshu. With skills best adapted to the rural village economy of
a society, they had little to offer. The one exception was in the
fishing industry, to which some brought skills and knowledge. As a
result, the Japanese came to be concentrated in that industry at the
end of the 19th century. On the whole, the Japanese immigrants took
any work they could find, mostly in the saw and pulp mills of BC.
Japanese had little difficulty finding work, the Japanese were only
marginally connected to the local society. In most cases, they clung
together in communities that stood apart from the rest of the
society. They tended to live in their own small enclaves. Cultural
ties, housing costs, restrictive agreements, and racial prejudice all
reinforced these residential boundaries. The immigrants also
established their own community institutions in order to survive as a
small minority isolated within an unsympathetic society. Newspapers,
trade unions, educational societies, and religious associations
exclusive to the Japanese were established within the immigrant
community by the early 20th century. Essentially, the Japanese
immigrant community remained a self-contained entity within the West
Japanese were assimilated only to a small extent, they absorbed the
language, customs, and values of western Canadian society far more
quickly than other Asians. Still, whatever the extent of Japanese
acculturation, the barriers of racism kept them from becoming an
equal part of a white-dominated society.
White society in
BC was anti-Oriental. When the Japanese arrived in the province, they
encountered a community already soaked in racism. Chinese immigrants
had come two decades before them and in the years that followed,
white society had already developed a strong dislike towards Asians
in general. Thus the Japanese met hostility from the moment of their
arrival. To the whites of the community, Asians appeared to be a
threat to the cultural and economic prosperity of the whites. Due to
this, the society was bursting with discriminate feelings.
Around the late
1880s, there were many racist events in Vancouver. This was a
difficult time for all Asians. They were no longer needed to provide
cheap labor and services so they were heavily discouraged from
settling in Canada. Politicians also were forced to follow the
anti-Asian ideas. In 1885, newspapers, various labor groups and the
people of British Columbia pressured the government of Canada to
exclude the Chinese. In response, the federal government enacted the
Chinese Immigration Act.
restriction was the “Head Tax’. It imposed a $50 tax on all
Chinese immigrants entering the country. After the act was
introduced, the number of immigrants dropped considerably. However,
the regulation proved to be effective for only five years, because
eventually, the number of immigrants increased again. Fearing an
Asian invasion, the government was pressured again by groups to pass
legislation to control the entry of the Chinese.
In 1900, the
Chinese head tax was raised to 100 dollars per person. In 1904, it
was raised again to $500. At this time, $500 was equal to 2 years of
work. This had a huge effect on immigration. Before the tax was
raised, almost 5000 immigrants entered Canada. In the year after the
new tax, only 8 Chinese entered the country. This was because almost
no one could afford to pay such a high head tax just to enter the
country. Most people were from poor regions of China.
Even though the
immigration statistics were dramatically lowered, discrimination was
still strong. The unemployed whites felt that Asians had stolen their
jobs and therefore felt hatred towards them. This hatred lead to the
many riots that were started partially in response to the BC
government for not suspending Asian immigration.
In response to
the riots, the government did not try to deal with racism; instead
they limited Asian immigration. By 1910, the federal government had
set up new immigration policies to solve the Asian ‘problem’.
From that point on, all Asians had to have at least $200 in their
pockets. This was tougher on the Chinese, for they had to also pay
the $500 Chinese head tax. For the Japanese, the government made a
“gentleman’s agreement” to limit Japanese immigration to 400
people per year which was eventually reduced to 150 Japanese people
per year in 1923. These policies practically ended Asian immigration.
On July 1st,
1923, federal legislation was passed, suspending Chinese immigration
entirely in the Exclusion Act. Although the chances of stopping the
bill from passing through parliament were very slim, the Chinese
pulled together and a committee was set up to stop the Act. It was a
good effort, but the bill was introduced and passed quickly and the
Chinese had little time to prepare and plan. Ironically, the Act came
into effect on July 1st, Canada Dominion Day. Rather than a day of
celebration for Chinese Canadian, July 1st became known as
“Humiliation Day”. It wasn’t until after World War II, in 1947,
that the Chinese were once again allowed to immigrate to Canada.
Chinese women were not allowed to join their husbands and many of the
pioneer men were left bachelors in Canada for the next 20 or more
years. It was almost 20 years later before the Japanese were excluded
from entry into Canada, but the nature of that exclusion is also one
of the most tragic events in Canadian history.
On December 7th,
1941, Japan suddenly attacked Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong. This
started the final racial outburst, more intense, more widespread, and
more alarming than ever before. It initiated the worst time in
history for the Japanese in Canada. The Japanese from that point on
were seen as enemy aliens. In just a few days after the attack,
around 1200 Japanese Canadian fishing ships were taken away, putting
about 2000 Japanese fishermen out of work. By early 1942, the
Canadian government ordered the relocation of all Japanese living
along the Coast to towns and camps further inland.
Soon after, at
the urging of racist BC politicians, the Canadian Parliament used the
“War Measures Act” to order the removal of all Japanese Canadians
residing within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast. From March to
October, about 22,000 Japanese were forced to abandon their homes and
relocate under federal supervision.
Columbia Security Commission, a federal agency created to carry out
the evacuation, executed its tasks methodically and systematically.
As a first step it used the Hastings Park Exhibition Ground in
Vancouver for use as a shelter and clearing house for the Japanese
evacuees. The center’s first residents were Japanese from Vancouver
Island and outlying coastal districts. They were herded into a
building usually used for housing livestock for the annual Pacific
National Exhibition. The Japanese had no choice but to sleep in
straw-filled mattresses and breath in the stench of cows, horses,
tobacco and manure. Fortunately, they did not have to stay too long.
Unfortunately, the next step for the Japanese was not a pleasant one
evacuees were next shipped to relatively isolated areas. The first to
go were about 2200 men who were placed in several interior road
camps. A further 4000 were sent to work on sugar beet farms in
southern Alberta and Manitoba. Some 12000 were dispatched to housing
projects in the interior of the province, either to one of the
several renovated ghost towns in the Kootenay Lake and Slocan Valley
districts or to a newly constructed camp at Tashme, east of Hope.
made maximum Japanese self-sufficiency a goal. As a result most of
the evacuees were sent to isolated areas to work in a make-work
program. Upon arrival, the Japanese men were greeted with freight
cars that waited as their new ‘home’. At these camps, life was
tough and lonesome. Everyday was like clockwork and loneliness
plagued many of the men. On top of that, the men were paid extremely
little. What little amount they made was deducted for food, housing,
workmen’s compensation and support for their families. The Japanese
felt really cheated.
men tried to speak up and resist the treatment, many were imprisoned
and considered as prisoners of war and punished as traitors. A lot
were members of the Nisei Mass Evacuation Group, an informal body of
second-generation Japanese Canadians who opposed the evacuation
policy. After initial detention in the federal immigration hall on
the Vancouver waterfront, the internees were sent to a prison camp at
Prisoners at the
prison camp were not given many privileges. First of all, all
prisoners were made to wear red circles on the back of their shirt,
like the flag of Japan. As a double effect, these red circles made
excellent targets. Next, letter writing was really strict. Only one
letter was allowed per month, and only about six lines were allowed.
Often, the guards omitted many words that were written. Even the
incoming letters were severely filtered and numerous words were
excluded. The only time the prisoners were released was to gather
wood. Life was basically very dull and boring. Although only a small
double fence separated the internees and the guards, the two led much
different lives. All this happened even though 75% of all the
Japanese were naturalized Canadians.
1943, the government sold all Japanese Canadian property including
homes, fishing boats, businesses, and personal property and over 1000
farms were seized. Families were told that since they wouldn’t be
gone long, they didn’t need to bring much with them. Politicians
insisted that the relocation was for security reasons and some even
suggested that it was to protect the Japanese from mob violence on
the Coast. Though technically, some of the Japanese may not have been
interned, their activities and freedoms were severely restricted as
they lost almost all of their belongings, ability to earn an income,
and were placed in areas where their movement was severely
restricted. In simpler words, the outcome was the same as if they had
been put in guarded camps.
later, on September 2, 1945, Japan officially surrenders after the
atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two cities of Japan. The
Japanese in Canada were given a choice to be sent back to a
war-ravaged Japan or be relocated east of the Rocky Mountains.
bitterness and confusion, many Japanese opted to go to Japan. A total
of around11, 000 wanted to go to Japan. In the interior camps of
British Columbia, over 80 percent of the adults favored the
repatriation. East of the Rockies, on the other hand, only 15 percent
wished to leave. Subsequently two-thirds of those who had declared
for repatriation changed their minds. The government was strict and
argued that the decision to leave was evidence of the disloyalty the
Japanese had Canada. In 1946, the government tried to deport 10,000
Japanese-Canadians but massive public protest made it impossible. In
the end, only 4000 left Canada for Japan, all of them voluntarily. By
the end of World War II, the Japanese community was shattered and the
spirits of the people were broken. Of those who remained, the
majority relocated on the prairies, where they found new homes and
jobs and resumed their lives. Thus by 1949, only 30 percent of the
20000 Japanese in Canada still lived in British Columbia. The pattern
and structure of Japanese Canadian society had been altered
Not until after
the War did Canada finally begin to accept Asians as part of their
people and remove anti-Asian immigration restrictions. In the 1950s,
racist immigration policies were lifted though a few remained in
place. By the 1960s, restrictive laws were repealed and soon legal
discrimination against Asians in Canada was a thing of the past and a
lot of Asian immigrants once again started to come to Canada.
generation of immigrants were very different from the earlier
peasants who worked very hard to secure a place for themselves.
Instead, these immigrants are highly educated, most are professionals
and many speak English as well as their own language. These new
immigrants have made a place for themselves in Canadian society.
Though racism and discrimination still exists, these recent
immigrants have made a much easier life.
Some of the
wrongs committed against Asians in Canada have been addressed. In
1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, gave 16,000 wronged individuals
$21,000 each. In addition, the Canadian government established the
Canadian Race Relations Foundation with 24 million dollars and gave
money to the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation to assist in
rebuilding the community.
Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the West Coast of Canada gave a
great deal of their life’s energy to the building of the
infrastructure of Canada. All of the early pioneers came to Canada
prepared to work hard in order to send money back home to support
their families and to build new lives in Canada. In many cases, this
was a long and lonely sacrifice and few experienced support from the
white settlers or received protection from the government. In almost
every situation, the Asians were paid less than the whites and had no
rights or privileges in the new country. Little by little, they were
denied until eventually, immigration was rejected altogether
separating families and leaving individual alienated from their loved
ones. Thousands of men and women sacrificed and endured a great deal
of pain in order to be accepted as citizens of Canada. Their stories
are a vital part of the history of the West.
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