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The history of anti-Chinese racism in Canada

category north america / mexico | migration / racism | opinion / analysis author Sunday March 30, 2008 01:30author by Edward W - Common Cause Report this post to the editors

In the wake of racist remarks made by Toronto city councillor Rob Ford, where he essentializes Asians and rhetorically suggests a 'take over' by Asians, it is imperative that we look at the history of discrimination and racism directed towards the Chinese, perpetrated by governments and business interests, here in Canada. Edward W glances back...

The Chinese community in Canada was dehumanized, criminalized, and made the other, without any recognition of the Euro-Canadian imperialist past that had, for centuries, driven the Chinese and other subjugated peoples to leave their countries. Unfortunately, with greater influxes of Chinese immigrants into Canada, such prejudices have remained. In fact, these processes can be traced back to the formation of Canada.

There has been a long history of prejudice, institutionalized and systemic discrimination, directed towards Chinese immigrants, affecting both the community and the migratory flow to Canada from China. These issues must be understood in the context of racialization and capitalist imperialism, especially since the major reason for migration out of China was and is the plundering of the country by imperialist nations – ie. European countries and Japan.

The British Columbian Gold Rush from 1958-1866

The first occurrence of Chinese migration into Canada began around 1858, in response to the gold rush on the British Columbian mainland. During these early years of Chinese immigration, there was limited discrimination directed at these new settlers. The British government was fairly disinterested, “allowing the same rights, liberties, and privileges as other immigrants”. The predominantly English community in Victoria reacted to the immigration with mixed feelings – curiosity, prejudice, condescension, and spite – but were generally unconcerned, preoccupied with the gold rush, though, the Chinese were never accepted as part of the community.

When a head tax was proposed during a public meeting on 5 March 1860, Governor James Douglas assured the Chinese community that there were no plans to implement such measures. He claimed that a head tax would not be the interest of Victoria, seeing as Chinese merchants would aid in the promotion of Victoria' economic prosperity and Chinese labourers would help meet the demand for workers. Ironically, the same capitalist, imperialist processes that led to such hardship in the home country, which brought these immigrants here in the first place, had also resulted in a lack of discriminatory policies in the 'new world' – though this would not be a permanent condition.

The Economic Recession from 1866-1881

The mood of the European British Columbian community towards the Chinese would change for the worst when an economic downturn was experienced during 1866, caused by the end of the gold rush.

Many Europeans began to perceive the Chinese as competitors during these times of high unemployment, and to see them as the reason for the undercutting of wages for white people. Others charged the Chinese with coming to Canada simply as sojourners, taking away wealth back to China and not providing any long-term benefits for Canada herself. In response to these allegations, Huang Tsun Hsien, the Chinese Consul General in San Francisco, would express before the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration:
This depends wholly upon their treatment in any country they emigrate to ... Chinese immigrants coming to this country are denied all the rights and privileges extended to others ... the laws compel them to remain alien.

While, a great number of Chinese did wish to return to China, it had much to do with the discriminatory conditions and legal perimeters put in place in Canada and not down to any personal inclination. Ultimately, many stayed in Canada but mainly because of even worse conditions at home.

These negative views towards the Chinese were reflected with the countless examples of discriminatory government policies against the Chinese. A striking example was the amendment to the Qualification and Registration of Voters Act, in 1874, which disenfranchised Chinese and First Nations people, though Chinese were still obligated to pay taxes and were not immune to conscription. In 1876, further legislation barred Chinese from employment in government projects.

It is clear that the division of the working class was successful, as seen by some of the characterizations made of Chinese, namely, the reconstruction of these individuals from fellow men to “labour machines”. An American Congressional committee investigating Chinese immigration in 1877 concluded that “the 'cute' Yankee was quick to discover that John Chinaman was a mere labor machine, and utilized him accordingly”. This type of characterization disallowed solidarity between European and Chinese workers.

The Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1881-1885

The main bulk of Chinese immigrants would arrive between 1881 and 1885, in response to a shortage of workers to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. In 1881, 2939 Chinese immigrants had arrived; in 1882, 8083; and in 1884, 2223. The employment of Chinese workers by Onderdonk, would save him 4 million dollars in labour costs.

During this period, no prominent government legislations affecting the Chinese community and migration were passed. However, discrimination and racial divides were perpetuated by Onderdonk's policy of promoting anti-Chinese propaganda written by various journalists and politicians to white workers, and the organization of Chinese and White workers into different work groups, in order to prevent workers from cooperating.

The First World War and Further Economic Recessions from 1885-1924

A second period of economic depression would occur with the completion of the railway in 1885, as the railway workers were no longer needed. In response to growing unemployment, in 1884 and 1885, the British Columbian government attempted to pass legislation that would virtually bar all Chinese immigration into the province and allow the prosecution of individuals that assisted in bringing Chinese into the province. Although deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court for the same reasons as earlier attempts, the British Columbian government would be able to pass legislation restricting the Chinese from certain occupations, like the Coal Mines Act of 1890, which disallowed Chinese employment in the coal mining sector.

Unlike the provincial government, the federal government would have no problems passing similar legislation. Legislated at the start of a recession, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was said to be an attempt to discourage further Chinese immigration into Canada through the imposition of a head tax. When first imposed in 1885, the head tax was set at $50; each individual of Chinese descent entering into Canada would be made to pay the amount. The Head Tax was then increased to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903. Interestingly, merchants and their families, diplomats, clergymen, men of science, students and tourists were exempt from paying the head tax.

The Chinese Immigration Act did not completely stop the immigration of Chinese into Canada, as some business owners, especially in the railroad industry, were willing to pay the head tax in order to obtain cheap labour. As soon as the economy picked up, immigration would once again increase, from 1891 to 1900, 26,345 immigrants would arrive, from 1901 to 1910 – 23,495, and from 1911 to 1920 – 32,244. This brings into question the stated aim to prevent the movement of Chinese into Canada. Instead, the Chinese Immigration Act was only effective in limiting the number of Chinese women and children entering into Canada to rejoin their spouses or fathers.

There is a possibility that, instead, the intended aim of the Chinese Immigration Act was to give an impression of government action against the perceived 'threat' of Chinese immigration to satisfy the demands of white workers, while, at the same time, keeping open, a source of cheap labour for capitalists, which was necessary at the time because of labour shortages during the first World War. In addition, the act may have been passed to ensure that the Chinese population in Canada would, by preventing natural increase and hence limited long-term prospects of staying in Canada, remain alienated from the community, as they could not settle down without family, at the same time, internalizing the idea that they were 'others'.

This again, maintained divisions between workers.
With a third period of economic depression at the end of the first World War, in 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act was replaced with the Chinese Exclusion Act. This act conclusively banned all Chinese immigration except for merchants, diplomats, and students. It was not until May 14, 1947, that this legislation was repealed and Canadian citizenship was made eligible to the Chinese who had paid the head taxes. However, lasting damages have already been done to the Chinese community.


Economic and social processes of capitalism have had and continue to have a large impact on the migration of people and the circumstances faced by the Chinese-Canadian community; indeed, migration from China itself would not have likely occurred had it not been for imperialism.

The externalization of racialization, for example, discriminatory legislations and racist editorials, would ensure the survival of capitalism, with the Chinese scapegoated as the cause for economic hardship, and also, with the working class divided as a result of the internalization of these racialist ideas by both Europeans and Chinese. These processes would occur in relation to economic circumstances, during times of economic prosperity and labour shortages, Chinese immigration was allowed; but during times of recession and unemployment, Chinese immigration was restricted. Though much has changed, many racist immigration policies exist to this day and must be challenged.


From Linchpin 3, the paper of Common Cause. You can read the rest of the articles in this issue or download (and distribute) a PDF file of it from our website

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