The year 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada, a dark chapter in the nation’s history characterized by discrimination, humiliation, and marginalization. However, in the face of this historic injustice, Chinese Canadians have not remained silent. Their voices, both as individuals and as a collective, have been instrumental in advocating for inclusion, equality, and social change for a better Canada.
As an English saying goes, ‘7 colors make a rainbow, 7 chords make music, 7 days make a week, and 7 continents make a world.’ In other words, every piece is special, and makes a unique component of the whole.
Chinese Canadians, like any other groups, possess unique perspectives and experiences that contribute to the rich fabric of Canadian society. As early as the late 1800s, many Chinese workers came to Canada and risked and sacrificed their lives to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway, which became the spine of the physical infrastructure of Confederation. That’s why some historians made it clear that ‘there would be no CP railway without Chinese workers, and there would be no today’s Canada without CP railway.’
Despite contribution to physical infrastructure, many individuals have emerged as beacons of social infrastructure change, inspiring others and challenging prevailing prejudices. Notably, figures like Douglas Jung, the first Chinese Canadian Member of Parliament, Vivienne Poy, the first Canadian of Asian descent to be appointed to the Senate of Canada, and the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, the first Chinese Canadian Governor General, have shown the transformative potential of individual voices.
Such voices echo. The incumbent and only two senators of Chinese origin, Hon. Victor Oh and Hon. Yuen Pau Woo, have been always campaigning on the Parliament Hill to defend inclusion and equality for all Canadians, and particularly racialized groups like Chinese Canadians.
At the time of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, they are tirelessly mobilizing the public to learn from the history and prevent the history being repeated. Among other initiatives, they are jointly hosting a National Remembrance event on June 23rd in the Senate of Canada Chamber on the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. On June 24th, they are also mobilizing a public rally on the Parliament Hill to voice collectively, fighting for equality and against discrimination.
Collective action holds immense power in addressing systemic issues like discrimination and exclusion. Chinese Canadians have learned harnessing the strength of their community and allies to demand justice and equality. By joining together in protests, partitions, rallies, and social movements, their voices have resonated louder and attracted greater attention. The collective power of the Chinese Canadian community has led and will continue to lead to policy changes, legal reforms, and increased public awareness about the injustices they face.
The struggle for inclusion and equality is not without obstacles. Chinese Canadians have faced enduring systemic barriers that hinder their voices from being heard. Discrimination, prejudice, and power imbalances have historically suppressed the individuality and collective strength of the Chinese Canadian community. The shameful legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, despite its repeal, has left lasting effects that require sustained activism to overcome, and more importantly, to prevent repeating.
Talking about repeating, Mark Twain once said that ‘History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.’ As community members are gathering in the Parliament building and rallying on the Parliament Hill next week to mark 100 years since the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, every Canadian should listen closely to the echoes of history and avoid replaying the discordant notes of the past.
One way to distinguish and diminish such discordant notes of the past is to empower individual and collective voices. It is essential to promote inclusivity, create safe spaces for expression, and foster collaboration. Recognizing the diversity within the Chinese Canadian community and amplifying its voices are crucial steps toward social change. By building coalitions and alliances with other marginalized communities, Chinese Canadians can address shared concerns, challenge systemic racism, and achieve common goals.
A recent example of empowering individual and collective voices is the Parliament Petition e-4395. It is collectively drafted by a group of concerned citizens and residents of Canada, and was submitted to the Parliament of Canada’s petition website by Dr. Wang Li, an independent scholar and columnist in the province of British Columbia. These committed Canadians come across regions, ethnicities, ages, and genders. The primary purpose of the Petition is to ask the Government of Canada to carefully reconsider its proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Registry. The Petition supports the Government of Canada taking actions to stop foreign interference from all sources, not just a few exclusive ones.
Diversity is Canada’s strength. Inclusion and equality are Canadian’s spirit. Based on these strength and spirit, Chinese Canadians have defied the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act, proving that every voice matters and that collective voices are louder. Their relentless pursuit of inclusion and equality has made a significant impact on Canadian society.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it is imperative that we listen to their stories, acknowledge their struggles, and continue to support their ongoing efforts for a more inclusive and just Canada. By recognizing and amplifying their voices, we can work collectively to dismantle systemic barriers, foster equality, and create a society where every individual, regardless of their background, is valued and empowered.
(By Ban Zhang, a Vancouver-based writer)
(Cover photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Voices & Bridges publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive discussion and debate on important issues. Views represented in the articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the V&B.