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

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Inquiry No. 11, which calls our attention to the one hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I would like to thank Senator Woo for bringing forward this timely inquiry. I believe that one of Canada’s great strengths is our capacity to self-reflect on the mistakes that we have made in the past. Senator Woo’s inquiry gives us an opportunity to ensure, upon reflection, that we never go down this path again.

Many of my colleagues have weighed in and continue to weigh in, but I’d like to focus my comments on the gendered impact of discriminatory immigration policies on the Chinese community.

During the 24 years that the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place, Canada admitted fewer than 50 Chinese people. This was indeed a very cruel way to repay the contributions of the 17,000 Chinese labourers who played an essential role in building the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was the first great infrastructure nation-building project of Canada.

When the railway was completed in 1885, instead of rewarding the Chinese labourers, Parliament enacted the Chinese Immigration Act, which placed a head tax of $50 on Chinese people coming to Canada. In 1903, $50 was increased to $500, equal to about two years’ salary of an ordinary person. This exorbitant amount meant many Chinese labourers could not afford to bring their wives. In 1921, it is no surprise that the ratio of Chinese men to women in Canada was 15 to 1.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 ensured that this ratio remained disparate. Over 90% of the wives of Chinese men were left behind in China. During their husbands’ prolonged absences, wives had the responsibility of raising children and looking after parents. Visits by husbands were short and infrequent because their right to return to Canada would be revoked if they were away for more than two years. Remember, colleagues, there were no airplanes, there were no jets; there was only the long way with the ship. Many children grew up barely knowing their fathers.

Canada did not repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act until 1947. When it did, it was replaced by a restrictive race-based immigration policy under which only those Chinese who already had a Canadian citizenship were allowed to sponsor their families. In other words, it was a restrictive measure of a different kind. The same rules, of course, did not apply to European immigrants. Twenty years later, after the points system was adopted, Chinese people finally began to be admitted under the same criteria as other ethnic groups.

Wives who succeeded in entering Canada in the 1950s and 1960s found their lives fundamentally transformed. Having lived without a spouse for years, they had to deal with readjusting to husbands they barely knew. Many put in long working hours labouring in their husband’s small businesses or took on multiple manual jobs.

In the early years of their arrival in Canada, Chinese women found themselves socially isolated and excluded. But it was their daughters and their granddaughters who took up their cause for justice. Chinese Canadian women like Avvy Go, Chow Quen Lee and Susan Eng were instrumental in campaigning for an apology and a redress.

As the President of the Toronto Chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, Avvy Go became involved in the campaign in 1989. She was co-counsel in the class-action lawsuit seeking redress for the head taxpayers and their families. One of the three litigants who led the lawsuit was Chow Quen Lee. Separated from her husband for 14 years because of the act, she was an outspoken activist. Although the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, it set into motion talks with the government that ended with an official parliamentary apology in 2006.

As co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Head Tax Payers and Families, Susan Eng convinced VIA Rail to sponsor the Redress Express, during which about 100 people boarded a train from Vancouver to travel to Ottawa to hear the apology.

I want to also note the contributions of Dora Nipp, Chief Executive Officer of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. She comes from a family who helped build the railway and paid the head tax. As a historian, Dora Nipp has conducted extensive oral history interviews documenting the experiences of immigrants to Canada. She has also produced various works, including directing Under the Willow Tree, a documentary on pioneer Chinese women in Canada.

These women fought for justice and they were ultimately successful, with the government handing out symbolic payments to roughly 400 survivors and widows in 2006.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory measures had profound and lasting impacts on Chinese women and families. It took until 1981 for the sex ratio in the Chinese Canadian community to equalize. On the one hundredth anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it’s important to recognize not just the prejudice that the community faced but also the tremendous perseverance it took to have these injustices reversed. Canadian Chinese women played a significant role in seeking and achieving this redress. In their honour, I thank you, colleagues.