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Asian History In Canada Essay, Research Paper

Around the 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.

The first 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.

Even while 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 home.

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 and dedication.

Immediately 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.

While the 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 Coast society.

Although the 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.

The main 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.

The British 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 either.

The Japanese 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.

The Commission 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.

When Japanese 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 Angler, Ontario.

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.

Starting from 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.

Several years 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.

In the 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 permanently.

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.

The new 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.

The early 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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