History of Chinese immigration to Canada

The launch of the North-West America at Nootka Sound, 1788

In the late 1770s, some 120 Chinese contract labourers arrived at Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island.[1]:312 The British fur trader John Meares recruited an initial group of about 50 sailors and artisans from Canton (Guangzhou) and Macao. At Nootka Sound, the Chinese workers built a dockyard, a fort and a sailing ship, the North-West America. Regarding this journey was and the future prospects of Chinese people settlement in colonial North America, Meares wrote:

The Chinese were, on this occasion, shipped as an experiment: they have generally been esteemed as hardy, and industrious, as well as ingenious race of people; they live on fish and rice, and requiring low wages, it was actually not a matter also of economical consideration to employ them; and during the whole of the voyage there was every reason to be satisfied with their services. If trading posts should be established on the American coast, a colony of these men would be a very valuable acquisition.
John Meares, Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America[2]:2

The next year, Meares had another 70 Chinese shipped from Canton. However, shortly upon arrival of this second group, the settlement was seized by the Spanish in what became known as the Nootka Crisis. The Chinese men were imprisoned by the Spanish. It is unclear what became of them[1]:312 but likely that some returned to China while others were put to work in a nearby mine [3]:196 and later brought to Mexico.[4]:106 No other Chinese are known to have arrived in western North America until the gold rush of the 1850s.

The Gold Rush

The Chinese first appeared in large numbers in the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1858 as part of the huge migration to that colony from California during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in the newly declared Mainland. Although the first wave arrived in May from California, news of rush eventually attracted many Chinese from China itself.

Omineca Miner Ah Hoo at Germansens Landing in 1913. Many Chinese remained in the province's Interior and North long after the gold rushes. Some towns such as Stanley were predominantly Chinese for many years, while in the Fraser Canyon and even more remote areas such as the Omineca, Chinese miners stayed on to mine claims in wilderness areas.

In the goldfields, Chinese mining techniques and knowledge turned out to be better in many ways to those of others, including hydraulic techniques, the use of "rockers", and a technique whereby blankets were used as filter for alluvial sand and then burned, with the gold melting into lumps in the fire. In the Fraser Canyon, Chinese miners stayed on long after all others had left for the Cariboo Gold Rush or other goldfields elsewhere in BC or the United States and continued both hydraulic and farming, owned the majority of land in the Fraser and Thompson Canyons for many years afterwards. At Barkerville, in the Cariboo, over half the town's population was estimated to be Chinese, and several other towns including Richfield, Stanley, Van Winkle, Quesnellemouthe (modern Quesnel), Antler, and Quesnelle Forks had significant Chinatowns (Lillooet's lasting until the 1930s) and there was no shortage of successful Chinese miners.[5][6]

Immigration for the railway

Chinese labourers working on the Canadian Pacific Railway mile sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway from the Pacific to Craigellachie in the Eagle Pass in British Columbia. The railway from Vancouver to Craigellachie consisted of 28 such sections, 2% of which were constructed by workers of European origin.

When British Columbia agreed to join Confederation in 1871, one of the conditions was that the Dominion government build a railway linking B.C. with eastern Canada within 10 years. British Columbia politicians and their electorate agitated for an immigration program from the British Isles to provide this railway labour, but Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, betraying the wishes of his constituency, Victoria, by insisting the project cut costs by employing Chinese to build the railway, and summarized the situation this way to Parliament in 1882: "It is simply a question of alternatives: either you must have this labour or you can't have the railway."[7] (British Columbia politicians had wanted a settlement-immigration plan for workers from the British Isles, but Canadian politicians and investors said it would be too expensive).

In 1880, Andrew Onderdonk, an American who was one of the main Canadian Pacific Railway construction contractors in British Columbia, originally enlisted Chinese labourers from California. When most of these deserted the railway workings for the goldfields, Onderdonk and his agents signed several agreements with Chinese contractors in China's Guangdong province, Taiwan and also via Chinese companies in Victoria. Through those contracts more than 5,000 labourers were sent as "guest workers" from China by ship. Onderdonk also recruited over 7,000 Chinese railway workers from California. These two groups of workers were the main force for the building of Onderdonk's seven per cent of the railway's mileage. As was the case with non-Chinese workers, some of them fell ill during construction or died while planting explosives or in other construction accidents, but many deserted the rail workings for the province's various goldfields. By the end of 1881, the first group of Chinese labourers, which was previously numbered at 5,000, had less than 1,500 remaining as a large number had deserted for the goldfields away from the rail line Onderdonk needed more workers, so he directly contracted Chinese businessmen in Victoria, California and China to send many more workers to Canada.

Onderdonk engaged these Chinese labour contractors who engaged Chinese workers willing to accept only $1 a day while white, black and native workers were paid three times that amount. Chinese railway workers were hired for 200 miles of the Canadian Pacific Railway considered to be among the more difficult segments of the projected railway, notably the area that goes through the Fraser Canyon. As with railway workers on other parts of the line in the Prairies and northern Ontario, most of the Chinese workers lived in tents. These canvas tents were often unsafe, and did not provide adequate protection against falling rocks or severe weather in areas of steep terrain. Such tents were typical of working-class accommodations on the frontier for all immigrant workers although (non-Chinese) foremen, shift bosses and trained railwaymen recruited from the UK were housed in sleeping cars and railway-built houses in Yale and the other railway towns. Chinese railway workers also established transient Chinatowns along the rail line, with housing at the largest consisting of log-houses half dug into the ground, which was a common housing style for natives as well as other frontier settlers, because of the insulating effect of the ground in an area of extreme temperatures.

Chinese in Canada after the completion of the CPR

After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, many Chinese were left with no work and no longer seen as useful to both the CPR and the Canadian government. The government of Canada passed The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 levying a "Head Tax" of $50 on any Chinese coming to Canada. After the 1885 legislation failed to deter Chinese immigration to Canada, the government of Canada passed The Chinese Immigration Act, 1900 to increase the tax to $100, and The Chinese Immigration Act, 1903 further increased the landing fees to $500, equivalent to $8000 in 2003.[8] - as compared to the Right of Landing Fee, or Right of Permanent Residence Fee, of merely $975 per person paid by new immigrants in 1995–2005, and further reduced to $490 in 2006.[9] In addition to federal legislation, municipal ordinances restricted employment opportunities even in industries not desirable to white Canadians, such as laundries.[10]

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, better known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, replaced prohibitive fees with an outright ban on Chinese immigration to Canada with the exceptions of merchants, diplomats, students, and "special circumstances" cases. The Chinese that entered Canada before 1924 had to register with the local authorities and could leave Canada only for two years or less. Since the Exclusion Act went into effect on July 1, 1923, Chinese at the time referred to Dominion Day as "Humiliation Day" and refused to celebrate Dominion Day until after the act was repealed in 1947.

From the completion of the CPR to the end of the Exclusion Era (1923–1947), Chinese in Canada lived in mainly a "bachelors of the backpack society" since most Chinese families could not pay the expensive head tax to send their daughters to Canada. As with many other groups of immigrants, Chinese initially found it hard to adjust and assimilate into life in Canada. As a result, they formed ethnic enclaves known as "Chinatowns" where they could live alongside fellow Chinese immigrants.[11] Chinese settlers began moving eastward after the completion of the CPR, although Chinese numbers in BC continued to grow and, until the 1960s, there were no significant populations of Chinese in any other province. With legislation banning Chinese from many professions, Chinese entered professions that non-Chinese Canadians did not want to do like laundry shops or salmon processing. These Chinese opened grocery stores and restaurants that served the whole population, not just Chinese, and Chinese cooks became the mainstay in the restaurant and hotel industries as well as in private service. Chinese success at market gardening led to a continuing prominent role in the produce industry in British Columbia. After the railway was finished, their families could come to Canada. They could become Canadian citizens. Even though they became citizens of Canada, they have faced discrimination. There were large scale Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver in 1907.

Chinese merchants formed the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, with the first branch in Victoria in 1885 and the second one in Vancouver in 1895. The Association was mandatory for all Chinese in the area to join and it did everything from representing members in legal disputes to sending the remains of a members who died back to their ancestral homelands in China. After legislation in 1896 that stripped Chinese of voting rights in municipal elections in B.C., the Chinese in B.C. became completely disenfranchised. The electors list in federal elections came from the provincial electors list, and the provincial ones came from the municipal one.[12]

After Canada entered World War II on September 10, 1939, Chinese communities greatly contributed to Canada's war effort, mainly in an attempt to persuade Canada to intervene against Japan in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which had started in 1937 (although Canada did not declare war on Japan until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941). The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association requested its members to purchase Canadian and Chinese war bonds and to boycott Japanese goods. Also, many Chinese enlisted in the Canadian forces. But Ottawa and the B.C. government were unwilling to send Chinese-Canadian recruits into action, since they did not want Chinese to ask for enfranchisement after the war. However, with 90,000 British troops captured in the Battles of Malaya and Singapore in February 1942, Ottawa decided to send Chinese-Canadian forces in as spies to train the local guerrillas to resist the Japanese Imperial Forces in 1944. However, these spies were little more than a token gesture, as the outcome of World War II had been more or less decided by that time.

Strife during the post-war period

The experiences of the Holocaust made racial discrimination unacceptable in Canada, at least from the government policy standpoint. Also, with the war aim of defeating Nazism in terms of discrimination, Canada's racial legislation made it look hypocritical. Moreover, with Chinese Canadian contributions in World War II, and also because the anti-Chinese legislation violated the UN Charter, the government of Canada repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and gave Chinese Canadians full citizenship rights in 1947. However, Chinese immigration was limited only to the spouse of a Chinese who had Canadian citizenship and his dependants. However, after the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949 and its support for the communist North in the Korean War, Chinese in Canada faced another wave of resentment, as Chinese were viewed as communist agents from the PRC.

In 1959, the Department of Immigration discovered a problem with immigration papers used by Chinese immigrants to enter Canada; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were brought in to investigate. It turned out that some Chinese had been entering Canada by purchasing real or fake birth certificates of Chinese Canadian children bought and sold in Hong Kong. These children carrying false identity papers were referred to as "paper sons". In response, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ellen Fairclough, announced a program called the "'Chinese Adjustment Statement Program" on June 9, 1960. The program granted amnesty for paper sons or daughters if they confessed to the government. As a result, about 12,000 paper sons came forward, until the amnesty period ended in October 1973.

Independent Chinese immigration in Canada came after Canada eliminated race and the "place of origin" section from its immigration policy in 1967. From 1947 to the early 1970s, Chinese immigrants to Canada came mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Southeast Asia. Chinese from the mainland who were eligible in the family reunification program had to visit the Canadian High Commission in Hong Kong, since Canada and the PRC did not have diplomatic relations until 1970. Institutional racism was allegedly completely eliminated in 1971 with the implementation of the policy of multiculturalism. After the implementation of the policy, Chinese Canadians finally felt that they were no longer institutionally discriminated in the mainstream of Canadian society.

The 1980s also saw movement of Chinese in Canada from the ethnic enclaves of Chinatowns to outlying suburbs of major Canadian cities. This movement was seen by some as changing the fabric of some communities with the establishment of new ethnic enclaves, commercial areas and use of Chinese language signage. The deputy mayor of Markham, Ontario Carole Bell expressed that the overwhelming Chinese presence in the city was causing other residents to move out of Markham. Also, the local communities in Toronto and Vancouver have accused the Chinese immigrants for hyperinflating property prices during the 1980s.

The incident involving a W-FIVE feature report in September 1979 was a turning point for Chinese in Canada in that it united the Chinese communities nationwide to fight anti-Chinese sentiments. The feature report stated that foreign Chinese were taking away Canadian citizens' opportunities for university educations. It suggested there were 100,000 students and featured a girl complaining that her high marks had not allowed her into the University of Toronto's pharmacy program because seats had been taken up by foreign students.[13] The data used in the report, however, proved inaccurate. The Canadian Bureau for International Education revealed that there were only 55,000 foreign students in Canada at all levels of education, and only 20,000 full-time foreign university students.[13] Historian Anthony B. Chan devoted an entire chapter of his 1983 book "Gold Mountain" to the incident, and found that contrary to the claims of the prospective pharmacy student, there were no foreign students in Toronto's program that year.[13] Chan emphasized the anger that the Chinese-Canadian community had about the images of anonymous Chinese people in the feature was because they felt the "implication was that all students of Chinese origin were foreigners, and that Canadian taxpayers were subsidizing Chinese students — regardless of citizenship."[13] Chinese communities nationwide staged protests against Canadian Television (CTV), the network that airs W5.[13] Initially, CTV would only offer a "statement of regret" but the protests continued until an apology was made in 1980. Network executive Murray Chercover acknowledged the inaccuracy of a great deal of the program's information and added: "We sincerely apologize for the fact Chinese-Canadians were depicted as foreigners, and for whatever distress this stereotyping may have caused them in the context of our multicultural society."[13] The protesters met in Toronto in 1980 and agreed to form the Chinese Canadian National Council to better represent Chinese Canadians on a national level.

During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Canada's recession and growth of the Chinese economy resulted in a shift in Chinese migration in Canada. Attracted by the employment opportunities back home, newer Chinese immigrants began to return home, but retain their Canadian citizenship (and benefits).

This mindset created the phenomenon of astronaut families. In an astronaut family, the husband, being the money-earner, would only visit Canada once or twice a year, usually during December or the summer months, but his family would live in Vancouver, Toronto or elsewhere. Often teenage children were left with a house and bank account for months, while the parents worked in Hong Kong., This resulted in various social problems in schools, including a worry by police that such children were more likely to be drawn into gangs due to the lack of parental supervision.

Immigration in the 21st Century

Pacific Mall in Markham consists of some 400 shops catering to Chinese-Canadians

With the political uncertainties as Hong Kong headed towards 1997, many residents of Hong Kong chose to immigrate to Canada. It was easy for them to enter Canada due to their Commonwealth of Nations connections. It was relatively easier for Hong Kongers to migrate to Canada than to the USA, as the USA sets fixed quotas for different nationalities, while Canada runs on a "points" system, allowing immigrants to arrive if they have desirable factors such as graduate degrees, training, funds to start new businesses and language abilities. According to statistics compiled by the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong, from 1991 to 1996, "about 30,000 Hong Kongers emigrated annually to Canada, comprising over half of all Hong Kong emigration and about 20 percent of the total number of immigrants to Canada." The great majority of these people settled in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, as there are well-established Chinese communities in those cities. After the Handover, there was a sharp decline in immigration numbers, possibly indicating a smooth transition towards political stability. In the years to come, the unemployment and underemployment of many Hong Kong immigrants in Canada prompted a stream of returning migrants.

Today, mainland China has taken over from Hong Kong and Taiwan as the largest source of Chinese immigration. A great number of immigrants have been Cantonese speakers and a disproportionate representation of Cantonese over other Chinese immigrants is prevalent in many Chinese communities in Canada. The PRC has also taken over from all countries and regions as the country sending the most immigrants to Canada. According to the 2002 statistics from the Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the PRC has supplied the biggest number of Canadian immigrants since 2000, averaging well over 30,000 immigrants per year, totaling an average of 15% of all immigrants to Canada. This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with an all-time high of more than 40,000 reached in 2005.[14]

Also, many Chinese-Canadians are becoming more involved in politics, both provincially and federally. Those Chinese candidates, however, are running in districts where significant Chinese populations exist. However, it marked a sharp contrast from the past where Chinese was a group traditionally uninterested, if not discouraged, in getting involved in politics. In federal politics, Raymond Chan became the first ethnic Chinese to be appointed into the cabinet in 1993, after winning the riding of Richmond in the 1993 federal election. Many Chinese-Canadians have run for office in subsequent federal elections. After two failed attempts, New Democratic Party candidate Olivia Chow (wife of NDP leader Jack Layton), was elected in the 2006 federal election, representing the riding of Trinity—Spadina, and the Bloc Québécois had an ethnic Chinese candidate, May Chiu, running in the riding of LaSalle—Émard against Liberal Party leader Paul Martin during the 2006 election. Ida Chong was a Saanich municipal councilor in the Victoria BC region, before becoming a BC provincial cabinet minister in Premier Gordon Campbell's BC Liberal Party administration. Alan Lowe became the first Chinese-Canadian Mayor of Victoria BC.

In addition, the Chinese community also sought redress for past injustices done against them. Since the early 1980s, there has been a campaign to redress the Head Tax paid by Chinese entering Canada from 1885 to 1923, led by the CCNC. However, the movement did not gather enough support to be noticed by the government until the 1990s. However, the government has largely been resistant to the calls of apologizing and refunding the head tax to the payers or their descendants. Canadian courts also ruled that the government had no legal obligation to redress the head tax, but it had a moral obligation to do so. The Liberal governments of the 1990s have adopted the position of "no apology, no compensation" as the basis of negotiating with the Chinese groups. The Liberals have been criticized for stonewalling the Chinese community.

But as the nature of parliament headed towards a minority situation, all political parties needed votes from all sectors of the Canadian electorates. During the 2004 federal election campaign, NDP leader Jack Layton pledge to issue an apology and compensation for the head tax.

After the 2006 election, the newly elected Conservative Party indicated in its Throne Speech that it would provide a formal apology and appropriate redress to families affected by racist policies of the past. It concluded a series of National Consultations across Canada, April 21–30, 2006, in Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal and Winnipeg.

Members of Canada's Liberal Party, who lost the 2006 Election (as the outgoing government) have attempted to change their positions, and have been accused of "flip-flopping" on the issue during the election campaign as well as being questioned about their sincerity. Many Chinese, particularly the surviving head tax payers and their descendants have criticized Raymond Chan, the Chinese-Canadian cabinet minister who was left in charge of settling the matter, for compromising the Chinese community in favour of the government. Recent published articles, in fact, indicate that he deliberately misled the public regarding a number of facts and issues.

On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a message of redress in the House of Commons, offering an apology in Cantonese and compensation for the head tax once paid by Chinese immigrants. Survivors or their spouses will be paid approximately $20,000 CAD in compensation. Although their children will not be offered this payment, Chinese Canadian leaders like Dr. Joseph Wong regarded it as an important and significant move in Chinese Canadian history. There are about 20 people who paid the tax still alive in 2006.[15][16][17]

See also


  1. 1 2 Laurence J. C. Ma; Carolyn L. Cartier (2003). The Chinese Diaspora: Space, Place, Mobility, and Identity. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-1756-1.
  2. John Meares (1790). Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the North West Coast of America: To which are Prefixed, an Introductory Narrative of a Voyage Performed in 1786, from Bengal, in the Ship Nootka; Observations on the Probable Existence of a North West Passage; and Some Account of the Trade Between the North West Coast of America and China; and the Latter Country and Great Britain.
  3. Arnold J. Meagher (2008). The Coolie Trade: The Traffic in Chinese Laborers to Latin America 1847-1874. Arnold J Meagher. ISBN 978-1-4363-0943-1.
  4. Arthur Lower (1 November 2011). Ocean of Destiny: A Concise History of the North Pacific, 1500-1978. UBC Press. ISBN 978-0-7748-4352-2.
  5. Mark S. Wade, The Cariboo Road, publ. The Haunted Bookshop, Victoria BC, 1979, 239pp. ASIN: B0000EEN1W
  6. Robin Skelton, They Call It Cariboo, Sono Nis Press (December 1980), 237pp. ISBN 0-919462-84-7, ISBN 978-0-919462-84-7.
  7. Pierre Berton, The Last Spike, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-011763-6, pp249-250
  8. Inflation data (Consumer Price Index) since 1914 provided by Statistics Canada can be found e.g. at the Bank of Canada inflation calculator
  9. CIC Fee Schedule, accessed 2006-12-02 Archived August 22, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. Wai-Man, Lee (Spring–Summer 1984). "Dance No More: Chinese Hand Laundries in Toronto". Polyphony. 6 (1): 32. Retrieved 12 August 2013.
  11. CBC television reporter, Eve Savory: "The National Magazine", June 27, 1997
  12. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy/022-905.002-e.html
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Protesting racism on TV". CBC Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-31.
  14. http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/pub/facts2005/permanent/12.html
  15. [
  16. (19 to 34 seconds)

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