Taken as a group, people of Asian origin are Canada’s fastest growing minority; of course, ‘Asian’ is a broad notion and the communities included under this rubric are highly distinct with little in common. The 2001 Census reveals a total of roughly 2.3 million Canadians reporting an Asian background. About half live in the province of Ontario and a quarter in British Columbia. Chinese Canadians form the largest group, numbering 1,094,700; Chinese Canadians are the eighth largest of all Canadian ethnicities, and the largest Asian group in all provinces except Manitoba, where the Filipino Canadians are the largest. The next largest groups are Indians (713,330), Filipinos (327,550), Pakistanis (74,015), Japanese (85,230) and Koreans (101,715). The largely French-speaking Vietnamese Canadians (151,410) are the only Asian community with large numbers in Quebec.
According to statistics, by 2017 half of the visible minority population in Canada will be comprised of two ethnic groups – South Asian and Chinese – with each group numbering approximately 2 million.
The month of May is officially recognized as Asian Heritage Month in Canada.
Asian Canadians were first lured to Canada in 1858 by the gold rush on the Pacific coast. At the time, Canada’s west coast was inhabited only by a handful of fur traders and Native people. Suddenly, 25,000 white miners flooded into the area, along with 4,000 Chinese migrant labourers hired as menial workers.
From the outset, white attitudes towards Asian immigrants were hostile. Testimony at the 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration reveals numerous highly offensive and demeaning comments expressed by ordinary Canadians and public officials. Newspapers at the time also published pieces displaying startling ignorance and hostility towards people of Chinese origin.
The Chinese population of British Columbia reached a peak of 4,000 in 1860, fell to 1,500 by the decade’s end as mining activity fell off, and steadily rose after that to 20,000 by the early 1920s. White numbers grew much faster, but Chinese people generally made up between 15 and 40 per cent of the province’s population until Asian immigration was halted in 1908. By 1921, they fell to around 6 per cent. Most of the immigrants were peasants schooled in the intensive wet-rice agriculture of the province of Guangdong southwest of Canton and were fleeing acute poverty and social disorder. Most apparently intended to return home once they had accumulated some savings.
Anti-Chinese agitation grew steadily, prompting the provincial legislature to ban Chinese employment on public works projects and levy a C$40 per year fee on all Chinese people over age 12 in 1878. The tax was struck down by the British Columbia Supreme Court, but the agitation only grew, fuelled by the coming of 15,000 new Chinese immigrants between 1881 and 1885 to work on the first Canadian transcontinental railway. Associations formed to oppose the immigration and one of the most vocal leaders was elected mayor of the province’s capital, Victoria, and later a federal member of parliament. In 1883, a pitched battle broke out between white and Chinese workers on the rail line and whites returned that night to burn the Chinese camp to the ground and beat nine Chinese men unconscious, killing two more. Mass anti-Chinese protests drew thousands.
In 1885, the federal government yielded to white pressure in British Columbia and imposed a C$50 fee on all Chinese immigrants. The fee was later hiked to C$100, but racist sentiment only increased, further fuelled by an influx of Japanese immigrants at the turn of the century. In 1903, the Chinese entry tax was upped again to C$500 and efforts were made to segregate Asian children. Japan’s imperial ambitions quickly became the new focus for anti-Asian agitation, which culminated in a 1907 riot by 8,000-9,000 white protestors, who rampaged through Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japanese district.
After the riot, Ottawa set up another Royal Commission on immigration, this time headed by W.L. Mackenzie King, then Deputy Labour Minister and later to become Prime Minister. On his recommendation, the government imposed harsh new restrictions that effectively eliminated all Asian immigration. White immigrants were required to pay a C$25 entry fee while the Asian fee was set at C$200. The head tax was taxation without representation. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 remained in force until it was repealed in 1947, and it wasn’t until two years later that Chinese Canadians finally got to vote.
Asian immigration was reduced to virtually nothing until the 1950s when the restrictions were slowly lifted. The new policy also cut off immigration from India, a move that proved contentious because 3,000-4,000 ex-Indian Army veterans had immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1900s. On an official visit to explain the new policy to the colonial government of India in 1909, Mackenzie King wrote in his diary that he had come to the conclusion that Canada should be kept racially pure, even if it meant the country would be weakened economically.
Anti-Japanese sentiment reached new heights during the Second World War. In 1942, Japanese Canadians were removed from the west coast where most lived and forcibly relocated to ‘exclusion centres’. This was supposedly done for national security reasons, but the prime minister of the day admitted in the House of Commons in 1944 that ‘no person of Japanese race born in Canada has been charged with any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the years of war’. Japanese Canadian property was impounded and sold at low prices, and the costs of internment were deducted from the proceeds. Japanese people were not allowed to return to the west coast until 1949. Some were deported and exiled after the war. In recent years, after sustained pressure from the Japanese Canadian community, the federal government finally conferred compensation and an apology on the estimated 12,000 survivors of the relocation. The Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) President Art Miki, on 22 September 1988. The Redress Agreement acknowledged the unjust actions of the Canadian government and provided a symbolic redress for those actions. C$12 million was provided to the Japanese Canadian community through the NAJC to undertake educational, social and cultural activities and programs that contribute to the well-being of the community or promote human rights.
The last restrictions on Asian immigration were removed in 1962, prompting a great expansion of the Asian Canadian population. A large wave of immigration has occurred from Hong Kong. Asian Canadians today do not face the acute racism of the past, but a level of intolerance continues, including violent attacks by racist skinheads, discrimination in the workplace, stereotyping and police harassment. Although Asians have done well in certain fields, they continue to be under-represented in the media, police departments, political office and the public service. According to the Ethnic Diversity Survey released in September 2003, 34 per cent of South Asians and 33 per cent of Chinese said that they had experienced some form of racial discrimination or unfair treatment sometimes or often in the previous five years.
As in the past, tensions are particularly high on the west coast where many immigrants from Hong Kong have settled. Asian Canadian leaders have criticized the mainstream media for fostering misunderstandings. This most recent wave of Asian immigration has been spurred by the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong and by generous immigration rules encouraging immigrants willing to invest money in Canada. The resulting immigration has transformed the face of the Pacific coast and is a key reason British Columbia experienced an economic boom in the early 1990s while the rest of the country limped through a recession.
In recent years, momentum has been building around a redress campaign to address the discriminatory treatment of Chinese Canadians under the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act. The redress campaign started in Vancouver in 1984 when Dak Leon Mark asked Margaret Mitchell, then MP for Vancouver East, to assist him in seeking redress. Over the past 21 years, more than 4,000 head tax payers and families have registered with the Chinese Canadian National Council. In 2000 a class-action lawsuit was launched. About 400 survivors and 4,000 of their descendants asked for C$1.2 billion in compensation and a formal apology. An Ontario Superior Court judge struck down the class-action lawsuit saying modern ethics cannot be applied to historical laws. The issue of redress was one of the key topics for discussion at a national post-World Conference Against Racism (2001) conference hosted by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF). Participants in the Conference passed a resolution calling upon the Canadian government to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese Canadian community, including individuals and families directly affected by the racist policies. Similar calls where made by Doudou Diene, the UN Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in his report on a 2003 country visit to Canada.
Chinese Canadians were encouraged by the goodwill extended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he met with head tax payers and families in a roundtable meeting in East Vancouver in May 2006. The Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, signalled future government policy in the April 2006 Throne Speech, where she indicated that ‘The Government will act in Parliament to offer an apology for the Chinese head tax.’ The Chinese Canadian National Council reiterated its call for redress, which includes a request that all direct victims of the Chinese head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act be awarded a minimum amount of C$21,000 per certificate to surviving head tax payers or to their surviving spouses, and a minimum of C$10,000 per certificate to surviving first-generation children if the head tax payer and spouse are deceased. There are rumours that the government may make a distinction in redressing head tax payers and surviving spouses.
The Second Asian Canadian National Conference Against Racism took place 25-27 November 2005 in Toronto, Ontario. The Chinese Canadian National Council convened this conference to establish a national network of Asian Canadian communities and activists and to develop concrete action plans for five prioritized subject areas: immigration and security; employment; media; racial profiling; and education.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in