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Inquiry: Senator Jaffer's Speech on the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act


Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Inquiry No. 11 on the one hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I would like to thank our colleague Senator Woo for introducing this inquiry and for encouraging us to speak about the experiences of the Chinese community.

The Chinese community has been instrumental in the development and character of Canada. Shamefully, Chinese racism is on the rise in Canada. I hear so many upsetting stories from individuals in British Columbia.

Honourable senators, Canada has a dark history of discrimination and mistreatment towards the Chinese community, as demonstrated by numerous federal policies and their impact, including the Chinese head tax of 1885, the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1923 to 1947, the historical denial of voting rights and the targeted attacks against Chinese and Japanese communities during the Vancouver anti-Asian riots in 1907. In February, Senator Woo eloquently described the impact of these policies and experiences on Chinese Canadians, the hurt, the humiliation and the fear they caused, along with the legacies of those policies and their continued impact on the community.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought forward some of the thinly veiled resentments that have continued to simmer in society. It saddens me to know that targeted racism towards Chinese Canadians was clearly seen in my home province of British Columbia. Evidence of this shameful reality can be found in a comprehensive 500-page report by B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner released earlier this year. The report confirmed:

Targeted anti-Asian racism and discriminatory acts have increased in frequency and severity throughout communities in BC and across Canada during COVID-19.

Honourable senators, the following facts should alarm and upset us all. The Vancouver Police Department reported that between 2019 and 2020, there was a 717% increase in hate incidents targeting Asian residents. These incidents included racial slurs, racist graffiti, verbal threats, stalking and physical assaults. Accordingly, a poll of Asian British Columbians conducted in April 2021 found that 87% of respondents believed that anti-Asian racism has gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, and 64% of respondents felt it had gotten a lot worse. It is also important to note that many of these attacks go unreported.

As for the victims who bravely share their experiences, it is heartbreaking to hear their stories of verbal and physical attacks. This includes seniors like Judy Cheung, who was punched in the face by a stranger as she left a Vancouver grocery store in 2021. In her seventies, she now feels that she must carry around an umbrella to protect herself whenever she goes out.

Senators, this is not acceptable. No community or individual should experience such fear in Canada. However, I do have hope. I know from my personal experiences how compassionate and how accepting this country of Canada is.

I would now like to take this opportunity to speak about the invaluable contributions Chinese Canadians have made to my province of B.C. Historically, Chinese workers have been integral to building the Canadian Pacific Railway and have played a vital role in industrializing the economy as skilled and semi-skilled individuals who laboured in British Columbian sawmills and canneries and also became small business owners.

In more recent times, Chinese Canadians have made significant contributions to science, medicine, public service, art, literature and filmmaking in Canada. I, for one, know, based on my personal experiences — as I have spent a lot of time in hospitals — that hospitals in Vancouver and surrounding areas would not be resourced as well without Chinese Canadians’ contributions, especially during the pandemic.

By highlighting the incredible achievements of notable Chinese Canadians from British Columbia, I hope to broaden our understanding of their generous contributions. I’ll start with our former colleague Vivienne Poy, an Ontario senator.

Senator Poy was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1998 by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. She was the first Canadian of Chinese descent to be appointed to the Senate and spent much of her 14-year tenure devoted to gender issues, multiculturalism, immigration and human rights and was the sponsor of the bill that recognized May as Asian Heritage Month across Canada.

Outside the Senate, Vivienne is an accomplished businesswoman, author and philanthropist. With a PhD in History from the University of Toronto, she has authored numerous books and enlightened us about topics such as Sino‑Canadian relations and Chinese immigration to Canada, bravely writing about the personal struggles of her own family as well. Since retirement, Vivienne has continued her work with organizations that aim to improve the lives of women and girls in developing countries.

Vivienne, when I came to the Senate, you were a great help to me, and I always valued our warm friendship.

In British Columbia, a man who has provided great service is David Lam, who also understood both the struggles of working against deep-seated prejudice and the hope and promise of opportunity in this country. David Lam was the twenty-fifth Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, from 1988 to 1995, and was the first Chinese Canadian to be appointed as a viceregal in Canada. He once described his responsibility as lieutenant governor as being a “healer of wounds, a matchmaker of sorts between people of different views, and one who offers encouragement and inspiration.”

Lieutenant Governor Lam emigrated to Canada with his family in 1967 and became one of Vancouver’s leading land developers, eventually starting his own company. He was instrumental in bringing Hong Kong investors to Vancouver. He was a firm believer in giving back to his country, along with the power of education and cultural awareness. In 1983, he established the David and Dorothy Lam Foundation and the Floribunda Philanthropic Society. The two charities donated millions of dollars a year to British Columbian community projects, such as the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

He also provided funding for numerous initiatives in collaboration with universities in British Columbia, including the Institute of Dispute Resolution and the David Lam Auditorium at the University of Victoria and the David Lam Centre for International Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Like Lieutenant Governor Lam, Milton Wong balanced a successful business career with a strong sense of social responsibility. He made tremendous contributions to his community in Vancouver across various fields such as finance, arts and culture, sustainability, multiculturalism and academia. Specifically, he founded The Laurier Institution, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of diversity in Canada.

Mr. Wong always went out of his way to encourage younger people or budding politicians to become active in politics and community. He was with me when I had tough times in politics and rejoiced with me when I was appointed to the Senate. He was a true mentor to many people, and I will always remember what he did for me.

Lastly, I would like to mention my friend Edith Nee, a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

Among her many roles, she was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and director of the B.C. Press Council. Edith has dedicated her career to adjudicating issues related to immigration, refugees, residential schools, press ethics and freedom.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Senator Jaffer, I must deal with this technical issue.

Honourable senators, it is now six o’clock and, pursuant to rule 3-3(1), I am obliged to leave the chair until eight o’clock when we will resume, unless it is your wish, honourable senators, to not see the clock.

Is it agreed to not see the clock?

Thank you.

Senator Jaffer: Honourable senators, Edith is very much involved in B.C. communities, pushing for the empowerment of women and visible minorities, even attending the 1985 United Nations conference on the status of women held in Nairobi as a Canadian delegate.

Edith Nee and Patsy George were empowering women, ethnic women and women of colour, by founding the Vancouver Society of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women in British Columbia and the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women in Canada. They have worked hard to make sure that all women were included.

By highlighting these few individuals, I wanted to remind everyone of the generosity of spirit demonstrated by the Chinese people towards British Columbia and their love for Canada as a whole, while celebrating their achievements and their public service.

Honourable senators, we are all aware of the debate that is going on around our country and especially on the Hill. I urge each and every one of you — in fact, I beg of you — to see that what happens between China and Canada is not the fault of Chinese Canadians. We have to be the leaders in making sure that what happens between governments does not affect our citizens. I urge you all to be aware of it and put a stop to it.

Thank you. Let us also take this opportunity to remember that diversity makes this country stronger. It is the key to our shared prosperity. There is no room in Canada for intolerance or hate. Never again should we pass an act such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Never again should we treat Chinese Canadians any differently from any other Canadian. They belong to Canada. Thank you.