Inquiry: Calling the Attention of the Senate to the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Honourable colleagues, 100 years ago in this chamber, senators voted to adopt the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. This piece of legislation is better known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” because it effectively prohibited the entry of ethnic Chinese to Canada for 24 years.

I am launching an inquiry to call attention to this stain on our institution, and to the profound hurt that it caused the Chinese Canadian community.  I invite all senators to contribute to the inquiry, which has two other parts to it: the celebration of contributions that Chinese Canadians have made to the country, and a reflection on contemporary forms of prejudice and exclusion faced by Canadians of Asian descent.

On June 23, Senator Oh and I will be hosting an event in the Senate of Canada, along with Action Chinese Canadians Together (ACCT), to remember the Chinese Exclusion Act, and to pledge an end to all forms of exclusion of Chinese and other Asian Canadians.  We have invited the Government of Canada to announce on that day the commissioning of a centenary plaque that we hope will find a permanent home in the Parliament of Canada.  The ignominy of Chinese Exclusion began here in parliament and it is here in parliament that the ignominy should be undone.

I feel a special responsibility for remembering the 100th anniversary because I am a senator from the province that was most ardently for Chinese exclusion. Odious speeches in favour of the Act were made in this chamber, and they were made by MY predecessors – senators representing British Columbia.  As the first Chinese Canadian senator from BC, I have a special duty to disavow that legacy, and to remind my fellow British Columbians of a dark legacy.

Here is a sample of the ignorance and prejudice that was uttered in our chamber:

On the question of whether wives of Chinese already in Canada should be exempted from the Act, one BC senator said:

“If you are going to open the door and allow wives to come in, you might as well give British Columbia to the Chinese. We have enough Orientals in our Province now. When I say that there are 2000 business licenses taken out in the city of Vancouver alone by Orientals, you will realize that.  The Chinese have gone into every business that you can name, and I think there are even one or two lawyers”.

And this from another of my BC predecessors:

“. . . out of a population of less than half a million we have 30,000 Chinese. . . . .  They are of no use to us; we will never assimilate them, we will never make Canadians out of them.  You might far better introduce men more nearly akin to the race to which we belong.  The mind of the Chinaman is absolutely different from the mind of the ordinary white mind.  You cannot in any possible way find out just how the Chinese mind works.  It is very true that in a way the Chinese are good citizens. They make good domestic servants and faithful workers, but they will never help us to build up a Canada of which we will be proud”.

Some of you may be thinking that the Canadian government has already come to terms with the Chinese Exclusion Act with the issuance of an apology by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006. In fact, that apology was for the Head Tax and it glossed over the Exclusion Act, which the former Prime Minister simply expressed sorrow over.

The lesser emphasis placed on the Exclusion Act is, I think, due to a misunderstanding about the significance of that legislation. The Exclusion Act is often thought of as a kind of “victimless crime” in the sense that we will never know the names of the Chinese excluded from Canada because they did not have the chance to even try to enter the country. It is unlike the head tax, which affected real people who had certificates to prove that they had paid this unjust levy, and for which a very small number received compensation following the 2006 apology.

The idea of a victimless crime, however, is a misreading of history because there were in fact many victims. They were the Chinese Canadians already in the country who were subjected to humiliation because of a law that essentially said that people of their sort were not welcome in a place which they had already inhabited for decades.  The fact that the Act came into effect on Dominion Day only added insult to injury. For that reason, many Chinese Canadians took to calling July 1 “Humiliation Day”.

The humiliation went beyond the fact that their kith and kin were not allowed in the country. The Act also required that every Chinese person already in Canada had to register within 12 months of its coming into force.  Failure to do so could result in a fine, jail, or both.  Even after registration, Chinese Canadians faced ongoing harassment from enforcement officers who questioned the veracity of the information provided by registrants.

The practical effect of the exclusion act in Canada, therefore, is that it was a “Registry of Unwanted Foreigners”. Do you wonder why so many Chinese Canadians today are wary of efforts to again register those who are already in the country but who are deemed to have the wrong connections or backgrounds?  Look no further than the dark history of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In fact, the Chinese community at the time had a different name for this bill — it was called the Cruelty Act.

On 1 July 2023, the Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver will officially open its doors with an exhibition entitled The Paper Trail, which will be about the impact of the Cruelty Act on Chinese Canadians.

One of the exhibits will be the lyrics to a song that was written 100 years ago lamenting the Cruelty Act. It was in fact the winning entry in a contest organized by the community to raise awareness and mobilize action. Here are the opening lines, loosely translated from the original Taishan dialect:

The First of July is just ahead,

Our hearts are filled with mortal dread.

Because of a law that ignites a fire,

That will sever compatriots caught in its ire.

I would sing this song for you, but the music is lost. We have therefore commissioned a young Chinese Canadian composer to write a fresh score for the lyrics and our goal is for the song to be sung in this chamber on June 23. Apart from the fact that this institution made the Act possible, I hardly need remind honourable colleagues that our building is a former railway station and part of the railway line that Chinese labourers were brought into the country to build, under the most difficult of circumstances. A solemn ceremony here in this very building would provide a measure of, well, cleansing.

There is much more to be said about the Cruelty Act and its long-term impact on Chinese Canadians and Canadian society, but I must move on to the rest of my inquiry, the second part of which is to celebrate the accomplishments of Chinese Canadians since the repeal of the Act in 1947.  That was also the year when Chinese (and South Asians) were given the right to vote in a Federal election, made possible in part by the hundreds of Chinese who volunteered to fight for Canada in the Second World War even though they were not recognized as citizens.

This aspect of the inquiry is in some ways the easy part because it is so obvious that Chinese and other Asian Canadians have achieved great success in many fields and have contributed richly to Canada.

But it is also the most difficult part because I cannot possibly do justice to the multitudes of Chinese Canadians who deserve to be recognized. Perhaps I can leave the job of naming some of these individuals to those of you who will speak to this inquiry and who might want to single out some members of your community for recognition.

What I will do instead is to point out that, in spite of all their accomplishments, Chinese Canadians are severely underrepresented in positions of leadership across Canada’s mainstream institutions, including the Federal civil service, the courts, public and corporate boards, arts, university and hospital administration and, not least, parliament and the ranks of cabinet ministers.

For example, a 2019 study of the largest organizations in eight major sectors in the GTA found that Chinese Canadians, who represent 11.1% of the population in the region account for only 2.2% of leadership positions. The representation of Chinese Canadian women in these positions is even lower, at just 1%.

This is a bit of a puzzle because Chinese Canadians are not generally lumped in with other “equity seeking” groups and there is a general assumption that the community is doing just fine on most economic and social indicators.  I think the answer to this puzzle lies in the community itself as well as outside of it. Many Chinese immigrant families prioritize diligence and keeping their heads down rather than seeking to challenge the establishment and assuming leadership roles. A common saying among Chinese families is “we are guests in this country”, which is a sentiment of humility and respect, but also one that was cultivated by a history of discrimination and exclusion.

Chinese Canadians are no longer guests in this country — regardless of when they arrived.  They should neither think of themselves as guests nor be treated as such. No one has the right to tell us to go back to the country we came from, not even the former chief of staff to a Prime Minister who said that to me because he did not like my views.

Which brings me to the third part of the inquiry: 65 years after the repeal of the Exclusion Act, there are still forms of exclusion in Canadian society. We know that to be true for indigenous and racialized peoples across the country.  In matters of systemic discrimination, allyship among indigenous and visible minority groups is vital, even if the histories and needs of different communities are not the same.

Chinese Canadians face at least three kinds of modern exclusion:

The first is old-fashioned racism not unlike the sort that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act 100 years ago. This is the impulse behind many of the unprovoked attacks on Asian Canadians in recent years. The number of unreconstructed racists is probably small, but they are aided and abetted by seemingly respectable folks who nevertheless feed racial animus by insinuating generalizations about Chinese people in Canada and the ills that they are alleged to have brought to society—for example money laundering, unaffordable housing, and the epidemic of opioid deaths.

The second form of exclusion is a function of long-held stereotypes about Chinese Canadians and what they are good for. Yes, the Chinese are super at math and engineering, they make great doctors and lawyers, are amazing musicians and generally good citizens. But are they suitable for leadership positions? I have already said that this is a problem that Chinese Canadians must confront in terms of their self-perception and personal aspirations, but it is also an issue for our establishment institutions to reflect on.

The third exclusion is the most insidious because it is an exclusion that seeks to divide the Chinese community into those who are acceptable and those who are not. An acceptable Chinese Canadian is one who conforms to a certain view of the world, disavows affiliations with individuals and groups that are blackballed for political reasons, and publicly voices opposition to what has been deemed as the all-encompassing menace that is the People’s Republic of China.  Not conforming to these cannons is seen as suspicious at best, or more ominously, as a litmus test of disloyalty and malfeasance against Canada.  This is the kind of exclusion that celebrates Chinese Canadians if they vote the “right” way in an election but who are deemed to have been swayed by sinister forces if they didn’t. It is the kind of exclusion that questions the motives of Chinese community groups who bought Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in large quantities to send to China during the early days of COVID and then questions them again when they brought large quantities of PPE from China to distribute in Canada when we were experiencing a spike in infections. It is the kind of exclusion that assumes every workplace infraction in the technology sector is an instance of espionage. That frames collaborations between Canadian and Chinese scientists as intrinsically suspect, and that calls on Chinese Canadian researchers to turn their backs on longstanding partnerships in the mainland.

Each of these exclusions has a justification that one can be sympathetic to, but the sum of these attitudes and actions is stigmatization, demoralization, and alienation — just like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 100 years ago.

I know the Chinese community is not homogeneous, and that Chinese Canadians occupy views on all parts of the political spectrum as well as on a variety of geopolitical issues. That is a strength of the community that should be celebrated. We must not, however – and here I am speaking to Chinese Canadians — allow this diversity to be used as a form of internal segregation, not least by members of the community itself. I hope the 100th anniversary is an opportunity for Chinese Canadians of all stripes — mainlanders as well as Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South and Southeast Asia, South Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and beyond — to reflect on the collective experience of their forebears during the period of the Chinese Exclusion Act and to work together to prevent modern forms of exclusion from dividing the community.

As for this chamber, I hope the inquiry is a reminder of how wrong the Parliament of Canada was 100 years ago and how easy it was to get it so wrong.  There were no recorded votes against the bill, and by all accounts, public opinion was massively in favor of it. Once it became accepted wisdom that Chinese people were a threat to Canada, passing this and other laws to counter the threat became only too easy, with any opposition brushed aside.  Let’s make sure history does not repeat itself.

Honourable colleagues, I hope you will consider speaking to this inquiry and look forward to your interventions.

Thank you.

Source: Senator Yuen Pau Woo