Welcome! and thank you for your interest in Chinese Canadian History. Please keep in mind that this is only a brief sketch of our rich past. For a more in-depth and detailed account of Chinese Canadian History please refer to the further reading page on this web-site. And for those who are limited by time, a three page Express Summary of this section is available.
FIRST SETTLERS: 1858-1911
Canada, the chosen land, has been enriched by one of the most diverse cultures in the world brought to Canada by Chinese immigrants. Although the Chinese came to the shore of North America long before 1858, this year is generally considered to mark the beginning of Chinese community in Canada. In historical terms, the chronicles of the Chinese in Canada is only a moment in time but one of epic proportions reflecting the sacrifices and hardships that led to the birth of vibrant communities. Collectively, the pioneers of Gam San ("Gold Mountain") as they called this country, are unforgettable and they have left us their legacy on which future generations have benefited.
The history of Chinese Canadians began with hard work, commitment and perseverance of the early settlers most of whom originated from Guangdong and Fujian, two coastal provinces of China. The majority of the early settlers were uneducated, unskilled and unmarried men (farmers and laborers). Women did not emigrate at first mostly due to historical tradition and social norms that expected women to be the caretakers of family and ancestral roots.
Although Canada was a prosperous country, the attractiveness of the new opportunities was not the only reason for the Chinese to immigrate. Between 1787 and 1850, Chinas Population increased from 16 to 28 million. Food production, however, could not keep up and famine became widespread. Break down of law and order, and political instability led to the death of millions. Farmland was scarce and farmers saw their land shrink further with the growing population. Guangdong during this time faced many natural disasters, successively leading to bad harvests. Most farmers as a result could not feed their families. It is estimated that between 1852 and 1908, the Pearl River Delta in the province of Guandong had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 plagues and 5 famines. The loss of the Opium War in 1842 led to more problems, and the forced opening of five new international trading ports led to a decrease of trade in Chinas major southern port. In short, major political, social and economical changes occurring in China during this period were all contributing factors to the immigration of Chinese to Canada.
The original landing of Chinese in Canada is unclear, although history indicates that a group of Buddhist monks arrived in North America as early as 458 AD. In 1788, Captain John Meare, according to his diary, took fifty Chinese artisans to help him build vessels for fur trade along the Northwest Canadian coast (British Columbia). In September of the same year, Captain Meare and his crew set sail and their whereabouts became unknown.
The first Chinese settlers in North America came in 1848 for the California gold rush. As news of the Fraser River discovery spread the first group of Chinese arrived in Canada on July 28, 1858, in Victoria, British Columbia. Most of these first arrivals were called "sojourners" (temporary workers) rather than settlers. They came from California, where an anti-Chinese feeling was then growing. Their historical arrival marked the establishment of a continuous Chinese community in Canada. In 1863, the Hong Sun Tang, the first Chinese community organization was formed.
Between 1860 and 1870, besides mining, early Chinese pioneer also worked on many public 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 Pioneers 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. Across the Pacific Ocean, the hearts at home also shared the same dreams as those in Canada. Like most new immigrants, many Chinese also dreamed of some day returning to their native land for retirement. They dreamed of somehow being reunited with their families. Others dreamed that one-day they would call Canada their home. They dreamed that their children and grandchildren would never have to experience the suffering they had been through. Although the days were long and hard, and the nights were cold and lonely, they continued to hope that their dreams would come true.
THE BUILDING OF THE CPR
The Canadian Pacific Railway was meant to connect Canada from coast to coast. It played a significant role in Canadian history, encouraging British Columbia to join in Confederation. In 1879, the government of Canada started construction on the western section of the CPR. A New York contractor named Andrew Onderdonk was awarded the contract to build the railway through the mountainous terrain from Port Moody on the Pacific Ocean to Eagle Pass near Revelstoke.
Even before Railway construction began, the Residents of British Columbia were afraid that the Chinese would take away their jobs. A motion was then passed by the BC Legislative Assembly to prevent Chinese from working on Government projects.
As the anti-Chinese feeling grew in British Columbia, Onderdonk assured the community that he would give white laborers preference over the Chinese. He indicated that he would hire Native Americans and Chinese only if he could find no other workers in Eastern Canada or elsewhere. About a month after the construction started, Onderdonk found that many of the white workers that he hired from San Francisco were unreliable. He was forced to hire Chinese Laborers, who were recruited from San Francisco and Portland. It was estimated that approximately 1,500 experienced Chinese railroad workers came to Canada from the United States between 1880 and 1881 to help build the railroad in British Columbia. As more railway workers were needed in 1881, Onderdonk began dealing with the Lian Chang Company to hire 2,000 workers from Hong Kong. In total, 15,700 Chinese were recruited though only 7000 worked directly on the CPR at any given time. The initial tasks given to them involved grading and cutting out hills to fill ravines and gullies. Later they were assigned the more dangerous job of tunneling and handling of explosive. The wages for Chinese workers were $1.00 a day and they had to purchase their own camping and cooking gear. In contrast, white laborers received $1.50 to $2.50 a day and did not have to pay for their gear.
Many Chinese workers often died from exhaustion due to the hard work and long walks between the job site and the work camp. 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 temperate climate, none of the Chinese workers expected to suddenly face the severe winter of interior British Columbia in ill-prepared facilities. There were few medical facilities available and many died from scurvy. The Chinese workers were dismissed during the winter of 1882-1883 due to bad weather and again during the mid winter of 1883-1884 when the work was completed in the Fraser Canyon.
The Chinese indeed helped to link Canada from coast to coast, leaving tracks built on hard work, determination and perseverance, for later generations to follow. The last spike of the CPR was driven in November 1885, though none of the Chinese workers were invited to attend this historic ceremony. Instead, most of the Chinese workers were simply let go. Some went back to China while others found work in industries such as forestry, saw mills, fishing canneries, coal mines and domestic services. Most moved to the eastern provinces in search of other job opportunities.
As for those abandoned workers who stayed and could not find employment, the Chinese community did not just sit and watch them die. In Victoria 31, local community groups came together to establish the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to serve the needs of the abandoned workers and new immigrants. The CCBA looked after the poor, ill and homeless workers. The organization also fought racism, acted as an Ombudsman in dispute between the Chinese and white community, and represented Chinese Canadians community before the Canadian government. The existent of the CBA demonstrates that there was a permanent and stable Chinese force dedicated to the aid of Chinese people in Canada.
THE HEAD TAX AND EXCLUSION ACT 1912-1947
Chinese Canadians have experienced a long history of racial discrimination in Canada. An intense period followed the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). When the last spike was driven, the government undertook a series of legal measures designed in both deter and profit from Chinese immigration.
In 1885, newspapers, politicians, 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 Ac. Among many other restrictions, the "Head Tax" as it was called by the community imposed a $50 tax on all Chinese entering Canada. After the act was introduced, the number of immigrants drops considerably. However, the regulation proved to be effective for only five years because, until about 1890, the trend was reversed and the number of immigrants increased. Fearing an "oriental invasion" the government was again pressured by interest groups to pass legislation to controlling the entry of the Chinese. The government raised the "head tax" to $100 in 1900 and again in 1904 to $500. At this time $ 500 was equivalent to 2 years of labor. Between 1885 and 1923, an estimated $23 millions in head tax was collected (this is worth over $1 billion today).
The Chinese population in Canada increased from 17,043 in 1901 to 36,924 in 1921. Throughout this period, white residents of British Columbia were not satisfied with the $500 head tax and they were adamant in their demand for complete exclusion the Chinese. In 1923, the government bowed to the pressure and passed the Chinese Immigration Act (also known as the "exclusion Act"). This latest Act prohibited the entry of all Chinese into Canada with the exception of diplomats, children born in Canada, university students and merchants.
Although the chances of stopping the bill from passing through parliament were slim, the Chinese did not just sit and watch it go through. Communities across Canada pulled together and a committee was set up to stop the Act or, failing that, to seek possible amendments. It was a good effort, but the bill was introduced and passed so quickly, the Chinese had little time to plan and prepare. The Act was introduced in the House of Common in March 1923, passed in May and assented to on June 30. 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".
The Exclusion Act was devastating to the Chinese community indeed, but the community did not give up. It continue to gathered communities together to work toward repealing the Act. During this period (1937-1947) world event galvanized Chinese Canadian community. In 1937 when the Sino-Japenese conflict broke out, the Chinese Canadians from across the country came together and held fundraising events to raise money for the war efforts. The communities were able to raise altogether $5 million for Chinas war effort. Many Chinese women helped to raise money by holding event such as the Rice Bowl Festival, bazaars and tag days.
In 1941, China and Canada became war allies together with the United States, Britain allied countries. This marred the beginning of a change in attitude of white Canadians towards Chinese-Canadian. Newspapers across the country described the Chinese as wartime allies and praised Chinese Canadian communities for their support and contributions to the war efforts.
Some 500 Chinese-Canadians served in World War II as pilots, soldiers, nurses and cadets. In addition to the $5 million sent to China, Chinese Canadian helped raise $4 million in war relief funds. They also purchased $10 million dollars in Canadian victory bonds. As the end of the war, Exclusion Act and the discrimination that Canada showed towards Chinese became an embarrassment to Canada. Throughout the war, Chinese Canadian repeatedly demonstrated their patriotism. Canada's policies ironically, also violated the Human Rights Charter of the United Nation which Canada helped draft.
Supported this time by non-Chinese Canadians, a movement to repeal the "Exclusion Act" went into full force in 1946. Chinese and non-Chinese joined forces. By the end of November of 1946, "The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act" was formed. It included 79 prominent Canadians; of which 80% of its members were non-Chinese. Chinese Canadian committee members included Dr. S.K Ngai, a local surgeon, Chong Ying of the Shing Wah Daily News, Wong Yick, editor of the CKT publication Hung Chung She Po, Professor C.C Shih of the University of Toronto, and K. Dock Yip, in 1945 the first Chinese Canadian called to the bar. The legal advisor and spokesperson for the committee was Toronto attorney Irving Himel. The committee also had support from Chinese and non-Chinese organization across Canada, including "the Protestant and Catholic Church, the Council of Women, several members of Parliament, the Canadian Congress of Labor and the Toronto Trades and Labor Councils."
After much deliberation by Ottawa and hesitation from British Columbia, the Exclusion Act was repealed in May 1947. The repeal of the Act seemed to be the reward for Chinese service and loyalty to Canada. It did not however give Chinese the same rights with other non-Asian immigrants. It made it easier for the Chinese to obtain citizenship, but there were special regulation governing Asian entry. Only the wives of Canadian citizens and their children under eighteen to enter Canada from China. Up until the late 1950s the community contunued to pressure Ottawa to allow for family reunification. In 1949, the age of admissible children was raised to nineteen and again to tweenty one in 1950. In 1951 Chinese Canadian women was able to bring in their husband, just as men was able to bring in their wives. Finally in 1955, the age limit of admissible children was raised to tweenty-five.
Little changed in Canadian immigration policies since, until 1967, when Canada adopted a point system for all immigrants, at last Chinese and other Asian were admitted under the same criteria as everyone else.
The Head Tax imposed a crushing burden on the impoverished new immigrants. Many paid off the large debts incurred by the imposition of the Head Tax through long, painful years of unrelenting labor. Five hundred dollars was equivalent to two years wages during that time. The Chinese Exclusion Act shattered their dreams of family reunion. Wives and children were separated from their husbands and fathers for a quarter of a century. The suffering and injustice that these harsh measures entitled are still fresh in the memories of many Chinese Canadians today. Fewer than 1,000 Head Taxpayers are alive today but there are also many widows and descendants who suffered. Our community also lost a few generations.
The Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act are two of the better known racist pieces of legislation and represent some of the shameful acts in Canadian history. In 1984, the CCNC took on the issue, and has been working towards attaining an apology and compensation from the Canadian government for its unjust and discriminatory action. The redress campaign has spread across the nation. We have been involved in organizing public forums, collecting information and maintaining contact with head tax payers and their families, publishing information booklet and articles and lobbying the government as well as the public for support.
On October 28, 1991, The CCNC and its National Redress Committee met Multiculturalism Minister Gerry Weiner in Ottawa and presented him with a detailed redress proposal. This proposal called for an all-party Parliamentary resolution, a letter of regret from the Prime Minister to each Head Tax certificate holder, and the return of $23 million to Head Tax payers and widows (minimum of $10,000 each). The proposal also called for a $5 million community trusts foundation and redress for descendants of Head Taxpayers.
The B.C Coalition of Head taxpayers, Spouses and Descendants held several public meetings in Vancouver with 1,000 participants. The Coalition, a member of the CCNC-National Redress Committee, has been very active in the redress campaign.
In 1992, the highlight was the Parliament Hill Redress Rally on May 17, 1992. Several busloads of Head Tax claimants and supporters went to the House of Commons. The 300 participants helped to demonstrate to the government that we would continue to fight for justice.
In November 1994, The Liberal Federal Government announced that it would not continue discussion with ethnic communities on redress issues. The CCNC submitted a petition to the United Nations to requesting its attention to the Chinese Canadian victims who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act and Head Tax.
In February 1995, the Federal Government imposed a $975 right to landing fee on each adult immigrant and refugees. The landing fee is another form of Head Tax directed at new immigrants, many of whom now come from Asian countries.
"Here is a scenario that would make a great many people in this country angry and resentful."
This was the first line of a CTV program aired ten years ago. "Campus Giveaway", an episode of "W5", an investigative journalism program, alleged that "foreign" students were taking away university positions from Canadian students. The allegation was not based on fact and more disturbingly, the screen repeatedly showed Chinese faces. The First Year Pharmacy class at the University of Toronto was shown on screen but there were in fact non of the students were "foreign". The six Chinese students shown were all Canadian citizens. The program made no distinction between non-white students and foreign students. The presentation was "racist in tone and effect." It labeled the Chinese students as foreigners and ignored the possibilities that those Chinese students might be landed immigrants or Canadian citizens whose families had been here for generations.
The statistics quoted were also distorted and inaccurate. For example, the host said that there were "at least 100,000 foreign students in our schools", but according to official figures, the total number of foreign students from 1975 to 1977 was between 50,000 and 56,000 each year, with the greatest number from the United States. There program also alleged that thousands of Canadian students could not get into medicine, while in Canadian medical schools, almost 400 students were foreigners. Actually there were only 85 "foreign" students in medical schools across Canada in 1978-79, 66 of whom were from the United States. These inaccurate figures were misleading and could incite hostility towards visible minorities, in particular the Chinese.
Chinese Canadian were outraged. In November, 1979, the "Ad Hoc Committee of the Council of Chinese Canadians in Ontario against W5" was formed to protest the program. Support came from various ethnic communities and politicians. Five students from the University of Toronto filed a libel and slander suit against CTV and W5s producers. In Toronto, over six hundred volunteers worked tirelessly raisin funds for legal expenses. Ad Hoc committees against W5 were also formed across the country, starting with Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
On January 26, 1980, 2,500 people marched from the University of Toronto to CTVs headquarters. At that time. it was the largest protest march in Chinese Canadian history. It provided the community with a venue for collective action. A seventy year-old man said, "I have been here for fifty-six years and I am very happy that, at last, we have the courage to stand up."
The Ad Hoc Committee continued to apply public pressure with complaints to provincial and federal Human Rights Commissions and a demand for a special CRTC hearing. Supporting these were 20,000 petition signatures gathered from across the county.
Yielding to public pressure, CTV finally agree to a meeting with representatives of the Ad Hoc Committee. The latter reiterated its position and demands. On March 16, without consulting the Chinese Canadian community, the host of the W5 program Helen Hutchinson, read a brief statement on behalf of CTV. Which said, "W5 regrets any offense that may have unintentionally been given to the Chinese Canadian community." The community however, was far from satisfied with this half "apology".
The statement further hastened the need for more concerted national action. The weekend of April 18-20 was therefore chosen for a national meeting.
CTV and the Ad Hoc Committee in Toronto met again on April 3. On April 15 and 16, the two parties continued to discuss a settlement package. In the afternoon of April 16, CTV released an apology, through the President and Managing Director of CTV Network, Murry Chercover.
...the majority of the research data was incorrect. We were clearly wrong in our presentation of facts and W5s initial defense of the program... We sincerely apologize for the fact the Chinese Canadian were depicted as foreigners, and for whatever distress this stereotyping may have caused them in the context of our multicultural society.
CTV also changed its personnel, editorial and management systems and introduced a mechanism for a better check-and-balance of their materials. After half a year's of protesting from the Chinese Canadian community saw justice prevail.
Two days after CTVs apology, representatives from 16 Ad Hoc Communities came to the national meeting in Toronto. The Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality was formed. On April 20, 1990 the new national council formally accepted the apology of CTV. The organization was later renamed The Chinese Canadian National Council, with the mandate of promoting the rights of all individuals, in particular those Chinese Canadians, fighting against racism and protecting human rights
The Carole Bell incidents
In the late 80s and the 90s, many entrepreneurs, professionals and their families moved to Canada to avert the political instabilities in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The settlement of these new immigrants in the suburban areas of major cities created new opportunities for business, jobs and services. Two of the most striking examples was Richmond in B.C and Markham in Ontario.
While influx new immigrants often bring many jobs and much wealth to the areas they settle. For the Chinese, their presence and "Chineseness" became a target of racial intolerance. In the last few years, hate graffiti has been appearing in many Chinese buildings in Richmond BC. In 1995, Deputy Mayor of Markham Carole Bell blamed the concentration of ethnic groups as a cause of social conflict. In her statement, she claimed that " the weakness of it comes when there is a concentration, when you are getting only one group of people" What the Deputy major didnt realized was that ethnic concentration are a natural phenomenon and are part of multiculturalism. Besides, studies of ethnic groups from various countries suggested that "immigrants will move out from their ethnic communities when they stay in the country for a longer period of time and have a higher levels of acculturation. Carole Bell is therefor challenging peoples right to choose where they wish to reside.
The Deputy Major also stated that "everythings going Chinese" in Markham and that the Chinese are driving away the "back bone of Markham away...the people who run festivals, coach our kids, organize our business communities, Brownies, Guides, Scouts." Her comments not only fuel racism, it also encourages prejudice against Chinese. Many newcomers to the Town of Markham, including Chinese Canadians, do run festivals, coach kids, organize Scouts, Guides, etc. Their contributions are no less than that of others. Her comments also conflict with those of the former Mayor Tony Roman who led trade delegations to Asia in which he promoted Markham as a great place to live and invest.
The incidents in Markham sparked an outcry of protest from Asian and non-Asian communities. A coalition was established among residents and organizations concerned about race relations, including The CCNC. More than 8000 people signed a petition to demand an apology from the deputy mayor. A public meeting held in August attracted more than 400 people and much coverage in the media. Twelve Mayors of Greater Toronto Area signed a letter dissociating themselves from Bells comment. The statement read, "We share the outrage and disappointment of Chinese Canadians...Canada has been built and will continue to be built by the significant contributions of all ethnocultural groups, including Chinese Canadian. All Canadians, irrespective of their backgrounds are welcome in every community of Canada." The Markham Town council later passed a motion to a similar effect. Markham Mayor Don Cousens also set up a special committee to study strategies that might improve race relations in the area. The committees released its report in June 1996.
In November 1995, CCNC hosted a forum on social planning and development in the changing suburban areas. More than fifty city planners, developers and business community people attended the forum to exchange their views and experiences in planning for diversity. These events helped the communities recognize the need to establish a voice that advocates for equality and justice.
This incident suggests that the fight against racism and prejudice is not over and that we have to remain vigilant. Even though the social-economic and political position of Chinese in Canada has improved over the last century, we cannot afford to forget the past or become complacent about the present and future. This incident also showed Canada that the Chinese Canadian communities today still as vibrant as ever, standing tall to fight racism and prejudice in co-operation with other communities.
There has been a Chinese presence in Canada for well over a century, but only in recent history has the Chinese community felt truly apart of Canadian society. The community has grown from its humble beginnings to a vibrant and mature force helping to shape Canadas multicultural identity. It helped build a milestone in Canadian engineering and a symbol of Canadian unity. It survived through both world wars and has proven its loyalty and commitment to Canada. Against social pressure and oppression, it persevered and endured, refusing to yield, overcoming both violent and subtle forms of discrimination and racism.
It took the Chinese community well over a century to become an integral part of Canadian society. The process has been slow and painfully, marked by great courage, persistence and firm belief in equality and the right to justice. Chinese Canadian was not given the rights as gifts. They have earned them through more than 100 years of hard labor, humiliation and sacrifice.
The Chinese Canadian community is still growing strong, in both population and presence. Today, Chinese Canadians can be found throughout Canada, in all walks of life and engaging in all types of professions. The Chinese are no longer viewed as sojourners, they proved a long time ago that they came here to settle. They have been given the opportunities to enjoy a more committed relationship with Canada.
It is our hoped that we, as Canadians, will not let history repeat itself in discriminating against any group of people, be it by age, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic origin. Chinese Canadian history has shown that it is to the benefit of society as a whole to give equal rights and opportunities to all Canadians.