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

Honourable senators, it is my pleasure to rise today to speak to the inquiry initiated by Senator Woo. The purpose is twofold: to celebrate the invaluable contributions that Chinese Canadians have made but also to reflect on the prejudice, exclusion and discrimination that Canadians of Chinese descent have faced and continue to face.

I would like to thank Senators Jaffer, McCallum, Simons, Oh and Kutcher for speaking to this important matter — and, of course, to our speakers today as well.

The contributions of the Chinese community in Newfoundland and Labrador are a significant but often overlooked aspect of our province’s history. The Chinese community has played — and continues to play — a vital role in shaping our cultural, economic and social fabric.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Newfoundland in the 1890s, and word spread throughout St. John’s that two Chinese immigrants would be opening a laundry business. Over the next few decades, the city and the province would continue to attract Chinese immigrants.

Colleagues, this was at a time when Newfoundland’s population was almost entirely White, Christian and English-speaking. In 1906, the province had legislation — the Act Respecting the Immigration of Chinese Persons — that imposed a $300 head tax on each Chinese immigrant entering the colony. This equalled between one and three years’ earnings and was a significant barrier to entry for Chinese immigrants. Despite the challenges and prejudice faced by Chinese Newfoundlanders, their perseverance and strength as a community remained remarkable, and their contributions to our society and growth continued to be exceptional.

In the 1920s, the Chinese community turned towards opening restaurants and is now credited with helping build the dining-out culture in our province. Early Chinese restaurants served foods Newfoundlanders knew about and loved, like fish and chips and roast chicken. Despite this, Chinese immigrants maintained their traditional cuisine at home and faced the challenges of sourcing traditional ingredients. In downtown St. John’s in 1968, Mary Jane’s was the first health food store to carry some Chinese groceries. Today, there are multiple grocery stores in St. John’s as the community continues to grow and thrive.

When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the Chinese head tax came to an end. With changes to immigration policy in 1967, Chinese immigrants to Newfoundland and Labrador became more diversified in their professions, backgrounds and practices, including health, science, engineering, mining and the fishing industry.

In 1976, The Chinese Association of Newfoundland & Labrador was established to promote Chinese culture and tradition throughout our province and nurture communities in preserving and celebrating Chinese heritage. The association is operated by volunteers who organize and promote events, including Chinese New Year celebrations, performances and memorial services. In 1981, the association, along with their community partners, erected a memorial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in St. John’s to honour the Chinese immigrant community in Newfoundland from the time of their first arrival in the 1890s.

Elsewhere in St. John’s, a different memorial stands to honour the 300 Chinese men that had to pay the head tax in Newfoundland. This monument was created in 2010 by the Newfoundland and Labrador Head Tax Redress Organization, a group working to educate on and preserve the awareness of this dark chapter in our history. The monument is placed on the site of Saint John’s’ first Chinese hand laundry, which was opened in 1895.

In 2006, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador made a formal apology for the Chinese head tax, delivered by then‑premier Danny Williams.

Today, our Chinese community is the largest visible minority, representing 1.3% of St. John’s’ population, or approximately 1,500 people. In broader Newfoundland, there are approximately 2,300 people of Chinese ethnicity, making up 0.5% of the population of our province. Despite these seemingly small numbers, the Chinese community in Newfoundland is strong, active and heavily influential.

I’m also proud to say that the growth of Memorial University has been a source for an increase in Chinese immigration to Newfoundland, with students and academics being drawn to the province for their education and for educating us.

Members of the community have continuously brought their traditions to Newfoundland and Labrador and generously shared their culture with the non-Chinese community. Recently, members of the community have brought traditional music to St. John’s audiences with performances featuring the traditional instrument, the guzheng. The YY Guzheng Ensemble has been performing for the St. John’s community and spreading the love for Chinese music throughout the community. The group has 15 members with ages ranging from their early teens to their 70s with a common love for music and tradition.

Honourable senators, despite a dark chapter and the incredible difficulties that the community faced, today they are an integral part of our province’s history. Chinese immigrants and their descendants continue to play a crucial role in our economic, cultural and social development. Their legacy of resilience and determination serves as a testament to the importance of recognizing and addressing historical injustices, like the head tax, while celebrating the rich diversity that makes my beloved province a unique and inclusive place to call home. Thank you, meegwetch.