Men from southern China came along with the earliest non-indigenous migrants to what later became British Columbia, for instance as carpenters and ship’s crew on-board former British naval officer John Meares’ private expedition from Macau in 1788 to (unsuccessfully) establish a trading fort in Nuu-chal-nuth territory on what is now known as Vancouver Island. When large numbers of migrants came from around the globe as part of the gold rushes to British Columbia in the late 1850s and 1860s, Chinese were a significant proportion of the arrivals, and many remained as laborers, miners, farmers, shop owners, and merchants even as the majority of adventurers looking for gold had moved onwards. Chinese in British Columbia helped develop much of the agricultural and small business infrastructure in the interior of British Columbia, as well as in the two main ports of Victoria and New Westminster. Connected to well-organized networks that linked them all around the Pacific region to the developing Australian colonies, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States, and to established economies in Southeast Asia and China, the Chinese in British Columbia were effective at establishing themselves quickly in new places as productive and entrepreneurial arrivals. Their ability to thrive often led to mutually beneficial arrangements with indigenous peoples as well as to other migrants (in particular in colonial societies in Southeast Asia), but at other times their efficiency and their tendency to out-perform European migrants led to conflicts.
During the late 19th century in the Australian colonies, in the western United States, and in British Columbia, many ambitious migrants began sharing and using the ideal of white supremacy* as an effective tool for politically organizing newly arrived European migrants. With the confederation of British colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, including the joining of British Columbia in 1871, Anti-Chinese agitation increasingly became a powerful political tool in British Columbia. Enfranchising only those migrants who could qualify as “white” was a particularly effective, and widely emulated mechanism for exclusion and scapegoating in political decision-making. Before Confederation, early Chinese residents in the colony of British Columbia could purchase land and property and voted in several elections. After becoming a province in 1871, however, one of the first items on the agenda of the newly formed provincial government was to pass legislation to take away the right to vote from “native Indians” and “Chinese.” Disqualification from the provincial franchise removed the Chinese from representation at different levels of government and allowed anti-Chinese legislation and policy to be passed without heed for electoral consequences from the disenfranchised. The legislation also provided a mechanism for the exclusion of Chinese from professions such as law, pharmacy, and dentistry by using the standard of voting rights as a basis for inclusion. The disenfranchisement of Chinese Canadians and the building of legalized racism and exclusion at multiple levels of government continued for the next 75 years (half of Canada’s history at its 150th anniversary this year). After a long struggle lasting three-quarters of a century, the franchise was finally and completely reinstated to Chinese Canadians in 1947, with the last franchise, the municipal one, granted by the City of Vancouver in 1949.
Note: The term “white” is historical in usage, for instance as used by Premier Richard McBride (Premier of BC 1903-1915) in referring to a “white man’s province.” The category of who counted as “white,” however, was malleable, and organizers using the politics of “white supremacy” could also promote other forms of discrimination and exclusion, for instance around religion, gender, and sexuality. When the Ku Klux Klan organized in Vancouver in the 1920s, for instance, it used antiAsian rhetoric and demanded the separation of “whites” from “Chinese,” “Native Indians” and “blacks,” but also explicitly targeted Jews and Catholics. However, the benefits of white supremacy could expand to include European migrants in ways that were not available to those considered non-white. European migrants who were not British Protestants—for instance Jews, Irish Catholics, and Ukrainians—could become more generically “white” by learning to speak English with the proper ‘accent,” changing their names to be less overtly ’ethnic,’ and hiding outward indications of non-Protestant religious beliefs.
A preliminary survey of legislation, policies, and practices implemented by the municipal government of Vancouver reveals that there were four broad areas in which the statutory power and governmental practices of City officials were applied in discriminatory ways against residents of Chinese ancestry. These four areas may be summarized thematically as policies and practices bearing upon:
- Voting (the exercise of the franchise)
- Exclusion (immigration and settlement restrictions)
- Restriction of livelihoods (employment, business and commercial enterprise)
- Segregation (restrictions in housing and the use of public and private space)
The report was first published by the Vancouver City Council.
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