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Senator Woo's Remarks at the National Remembrance Ceremony of the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Your Excellency, the Right Honourable Governor General of Canada; Your Honour, the Speaker of the Senate of Canada; Honourable Senators; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen; 尊敬的总督; 尊敬的贵宾;女士们;先生们;加拿大同胞; 下午好!Good afternoon! Bon après-midi.

Gathered here in the Senate Chamber, which is on the traditional territories of the Algonquin Anishinaabe, are Canadians who have come from across the country to take part in today’s event.  Gathered on the traditional lands of many other indigenous peoples, are thousands more who are watching this ceremony via livestream.  From the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax to the public libraries of Toronto and Calgary, to the University of British Columbia, Canadians are taking part virtually in this truly national event at one of nearly 400 registered viewing parties.  To all of you who watching online, I want to tell you that your presence is felt in his chamber and all of us here in Ottawa thank you for being part of this historic commemoration.

We are so fortunate to have Goh Ballet kick off today’s event with their original dance Pathways to the Future, which was specially choreographed for this occasion. You will have noticed that the dancers bowed three times at the end of the performance.  This was not only to acknowledge your presence but also an artistic rendition of the ritual bowing many Chinese observe when they remember and honour their ancestors. 

Which is why we are here today, on the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This ceremony, like so many other events that are taking place across Canada in 2023, is not only about a 100-year old law; it is above all about the Chinese in Canada who paid the price of that vile legislation and the trauma that afflicted the Chinese community for years to follow.

You will see the faces of some of the ancestors we honour today in the exhibition on display in the concourse of the Senate of Building, where we will be holding our reception after this ceremony.  And when you have finished looking at the portraits of Chinese men, women, and children who were subject to the head tax and other compulsory registration schemes, I invite you to then study the documents also on display in the Senate concourse, which record how the Parliament of Canada went about making the Chinese Exclusion Act possible.  The speeches given in support of the Act are difficult to read, especially for me, since I am a senator from British Columbia. After all, it was senators from BC 100 years ago who argued the most ardently for Chinese exclusion. They were in effect making the case for why I should never have had the opportunity to become a senator.

For what it is worth, the Senate of Canada made the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 less harmful than it could have been.  The Upper House removed the requirement for a language test to apply to Chinese already in Canada that the House had passed.  That provision would have likely led to the mass deportation of Chinese who were deemed to not be sufficiently fluent in English. Perhaps the thought of having to find a way of transporting thousands of Chinese across the Pacific was the impulse behind this outburst of sober second thought, but it was in any event a slim lining of silver in an otherwise dark and ominous cloud that lingered over the Chinese for 24 years.

The harm caused by the Exclusion Act on Chinese in Canada and on the generations to follow cannot be overstated.  You will hear as much in the protest song Never Forget July 1, written 100 years ago, which will be sung later in our program.  But it is a measure of the courage and resilience of those who were ensnared by the Act that the Chinese community did not abandon hope, shrivel up, and wither away.  On the contrary, the community campaigned for the repeal of the Act – through words and deeds – and were finally rewarded in 1947. The first Chinese Canadian to cast a vote was Won Cumyow (温金有), who, though trained as a lawyer, was prohibited from being called to the bar because he was Chinese.  He paved the way for others to join the legal profession, including in 1946 the first Chinese woman to be called to the Canadian bar.  Gretta Wong, at the ripe young age of 102, is I believe watching today’s ceremony by livestream and she is perhaps the only person attending our event who lived through the entire period of Chinese exclusion.

There are times, though, when I wonder if the period of Chinese exclusion really is over. The recent sharp increase in racist acts against Chinese and other Asian Canadians should give us all pause, especially those of us who are the usual occupants of the seats in this chamber. The Senate, together with the House of Commons, got it very, very wrong 100 years ago, and it would be hubris to think that we couldn’t get it wrong again.  This ceremony, therefore, is fundamentally about looking ahead and looking out for the danger signs of contemporary exclusion against modern targets in Canadian society.

Chinese Canadians have always sought to fight exclusion by embracing ever more closely the country that sought to exclude them. They did so by building a railroad that they could have expected to benefit from.  They did so by volunteering to fight for a country that did not recognize them as citizens. They did so by exceling in the trades and professions that make Canada successful, even when they were barred from full participation in these roles. They did so by giving back to society through good works even when their good works were not given equal recognition or were looked upon with suspicion. And they continue to do so today.  You, all of you, continue to do so today.

There are innumerable examples of how Chinese Canadians have embraced ever more tightly this country -- Canada -- as an antidote to the historical exclusion that their forebears faced, and of how they achieved spectacular success in all professions and callings.  Our next speaker is one such example.  It would be shorthand to say that he is a Chinese Canadian business success story, but that would only be a shorthand, because he represents so much more than business success.  I am going to let him tell us his story.  Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the podium the President and CEO of H. Y Louie Limited, and Chairman of London Drugs, Dr Brandt Louie.