The tumultuous years of the war and its aftermath saw a growing assertiveness on the part of indigenous, Black, and Asian Canadian communities as well as radical labour. White elites, however, responded aggressively – in Winnipeg and in Versailles.
Measures imposed by the Borden government in 1918-1919 impelled the state toward repressive actions. The forces of white supremacy realigned as they attempted to renew and reinforce control over racialized communities and Indigenous land. This coincided with the federal government’s attempt to gain greater control over Indigenous peoples. Confrontations ensued as racialized people fought to defend their ground while coping with divisions within their respective communities.
Riots in Toronto, Wales, and Halifax were initial signals of troubles to come:
Anti-Greek Riot (Toronto)
In the summer of 1918, a drunk veteran had abused a waiter and been ejected from the Greek-owned White City Cafe in Toronto. The next day, thousands of veterans gathered to loot and attack every Greek-owned shop in downtown Toronto. The riot reflected continuing prejudice against eastern and southern Europeans by the dominant Anglo groups, who spread rumors that Greeks did not fight in the war and were ‘pro-German.’
Anti-Black Riot (Wales, UK)
In early 1919, white Canadian troops rioted in the Kinmel Park barracks in North Wales while awaiting transportation home. When sergeant Major Edward Sealy, on duty as military police and a member of the No.2 Construction Battalion, attempted to arrest an unruly white soldier, the reaction was swift. White soldiers attacked hundreds of members of the Black unit as they went for baths. A biased military report encouraged readers to conclude, according to historian Melissa Shaw, that Black troops had “audaciously transgressed ‘proper’ racial boundaries.” Further riots by white Canadian soldiers were interpreted by the Canadian media as a response to Black American troops returning home before them.
Anti-Chinese Riot (Halifax)
Returned white soldiers rioted and mobbed Chinese stores in February 1919 after a veteran refused to pay his bill and ‘abused the Chinese proprietor.’ When asked to leave, he tried to steal cigarettes and cash. After being ejected, he later returned with others and began a two-night rampage, destroying mainly Chinese restaurants and injuring several Chinese residents.
These riots illustrate how some white veterans vented their frustrations against racialized groups who increasingly stood their ground, refused to be intimidated, and defended their comrades, businesses, and communities. The riots, however, were only the beginning.
Fomenting a Backlash
In British Columbia, the signs of backlash came fast and furious after the war ended. New Westminster City Council passed a motion in February 1919 resolving that ‘all Asiatic immigration be stopped’ and that ‘all enemy Aliens, as well as Aliens who rendered service to the State during wartime be deported.’ The neighboring municipality of Burnaby opposed ‘Orientals acquiring land’ and lobbied to restrict Chinese Canadian green grocers and ‘Oriental retail or wholesale traders.’
Farmers’ organizations lobbied against Asian Canadians acquiring agricultural land. They were joined by the Unite Farmers of British Columbia and the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, as well as white veterans’ associations, board of trade, and municipal councils, particularly in the Okanagan. At a Kelowna meeting, these forces declared,
The ownership of land in BC by Japanese and Chinese is continually increasing and constitutes a peril to our ideal of white British Columbia, as it is impossible for Japanese and Chinese to become assimilated as Canadian citizens.
Chinese Students Strike
In 1922-3, the Victoria Chinese community organized a students’ strike in opposition to the Victoria School Board’s order to segregate all Chinese students in Chinese-only schools, including those who spoke English as their first or only language. According to the board, segregation was necessary to provide special instruction in English to the Chinese, but racism was the real reason; as one trustee explained, “the mixture of white and Chinese students in the public school is abominable.”
A youth organization called the Chinese Canadian Club (CCC) initiated the strike, working with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to mobilize the entire Chinese community behind their cause. Their rallies drew thousands of people and raised thousands of dollars in Vancouver and Victoria, organizing enough support that two trustees opposed to segregation were elected to the Victoria school board. CCC president Joe Hope noted many years later that the students were able to build the solidarity of the entire Chinese community, bringing together people of diverse origins, languages, and interests, as well as competing associations and rival political parties. This unity enabled the community to survive the challenges of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Canada-wide Fight against the Exclusion Act
The 1922 parliamentary resolution calling for an end to all Asian immigration galvanized Chinese communities across the country. The Liberal government (replacing the Conservatives in late 1921) focused its energies on pursuing Chinese exclusion while finding other solutions to limit Japanese and South Asian immigration. Chinese government representatives in Canada shared this information with Chinese Canadian leaders, and communities began to mobilize.
Many organizations and sectors of society rallied to organize opposition. Chinese Benevolent Associations played a leading role, communicating details of the proposed Exclusion Act and urging members to unite to defend their rights. Associations were set up in cities and small towns across Canada, collecting funds and arranging demonstrations. Trade unions such as the Chinese Labor Association of Vancouver, the Chinese Shingle Workers Federation, and the Chinese Produce Sellers group responded publicly to the proposed Exclusion Act with a counter-proposal. Protest only mounted going into 1923.
The article was from the book ‘1923: Challenging Racisms Past and Present‘ designed by John Endo Greenaway. The book is collectively published by Canada-China Focus Stop AND Anti-Asian Hate Crimes Advocacy Group.
A free, printable pdf is available at https://challengingracism.ca/
The cover photo by Lee Mong Kow.
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