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Senator Kutcher: We Must Acknowledge the Painful Legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Learn From It

Hon. Stan Kutcher: Honourable senators, today I rise to address the inquiry initiated by Senator Woo, which holds a dual purpose: First, it calls for the celebration of the invaluable contributions that Chinese Canadians have made to our country. Second, it prompts us to reflect upon the prejudice, exclusion and discrimination that Canadians of Asian descent have faced and continue to face. While we celebrate the remarkable contributions of Chinese Canadians, we cannot ignore the historical reality nor the narratives that continue today.

Although there has been substantial progress, there is much left to do. We must use this time not only to celebrate but also to reflect and to act. Chinese Canadians have left an indelible mark on the tapestry of our nation’s history. They have been instrumental in the growth and development of Canada, with their contributions reaching every sector of our society from labour to entrepreneurship, culture to academia, sports to politics.

It may be new information to some that Chinese peoples were part of the 1788 Captain John Meares’ expedition that landed in Nuu-chah-nulth territory to establish the first year-round non-Indigenous settlement in what is now British Columbia, a full 79 years before Canada was established and 83 years before British Columbia joined Canada.

Deplorably, anti-Chinese rhetoric became part of a racist political ideology that in 1871 helped to deprive non-Whites of the right to vote, including Chinese and “Native Indians.” This was accompanied by many other forms of racial discrimination against Chinese Canadians that included forced segregation — in life as well as in death. For example, burial records of the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria indicate that Chinese persons were buried in a special block, set apart for the burials of “Aborigines and Mongolians.” The first Chinese person interred there was listed as “Chinaman No. 1,” the second as “Chinaman No. 2” and so on.

Driven by this racist political ideology, the federal government implemented the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. This legislation imposed a $50 fee, called the “head tax,” on each Chinese person entering Canada. Only six classes of people were exempt: diplomats, clergymen, merchants, students, tourists and men of science. The intention of the head tax was to discourage Chinese persons from coming to Canada.

In 1901, the tax was increased to $100, and in 1903 it was increased again to $500, the equivalent of two years of wages for a labourer. Despite the heavy tax, Chinese migrants continued to come. According to the Government of British Columbia website, no other immigrant group in British Columbian history has suffered such formally sanctioned mistreatment of its members on entering Canada over such an extended period. During the period of the head tax between 1885 and 1923, over 97,000 Chinese immigrants still came to Canada seeking a better life, helping to build British Columbian and Canadian society.

Perhaps well known to many Canadians was the exploitation of Chinese labourers in the building of the western sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. Two thirds of these railway workers were Chinese Canadians brought in by ship from China and California, working mostly in the most dangerous terrain. They were paid $1 a day and had to pay for their own food and gear. White workers were paid $1.50 to $2.50 per day and did not pay for provisions. It was the Chinese workers who were given the most dangerous construction tasks. Hundreds died from accidents, illness and malnutrition.

Their contribution is immortalized in Canadian folk music. Our balladeer Gordon Lightfoot, in his classic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” sang:

We are the navvies who work upon the railway

Swinging our hammers in the bright blazing sun

Living on stew and drinking bad whiskey

Bending our back til the long days are done

While the railroad could not have been built without them, all the Chinese-Canadian workers were cleared out of the final celebration scene so that iconic photograph — we’ve all seen it — of the ceremonial last spike could be taken. It was as if they had never existed.

It was within this historical racist perspective that the Government of Canada, on July 1, 1923, introduced a new Chinese Immigration Act, commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, to stop Chinese immigration to Canada. This persisted for almost a quarter of a century.

It was finally repealed in 1947 after Chinese Canadians distinguished themselves by fighting and dying for Canada in World War II. Dying, by the way, to protect the way of life in a country that had denied them a life based on human rights.

Senator Woo has clearly and eloquently reminded us about some of the speeches made by our predecessors supporting this legislation in this chamber.

These sentiments, voiced by our historic colleagues, mark a dark moment in our history, and should make all of us vow, “never again.”

We must acknowledge this painful legacy and learn from it, ensuring that such injustice is never repeated, not to anyone.

Regrettably, despite progress, contemporary forms of prejudice and exclusion still persist. Canadians of Asian descent continue to encounter discrimination, bias and systemic barriers that hinder their full integration and equitable participation in our society. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to confront these challenges head-on and to work toward a more inclusive and just Canada.

To do so, Canadians must prioritize education and a broadening of our common historical awareness. By teaching the contributions and histories of diverse communities — including Chinese Canadians — we can help foster empathy, understanding and respect for all Canadians, among all Canadians. Our schools must be places where the richness of our entire heritage is celebrated, where stereotypes are dismantled and where future generations can learn about the many important things that we all have in common.

As legislators, we have an opportunity to strengthen our laws, policies and institutions to move toward eradication of discrimination in all its forms.

In our own chamber, it is by recognizing and dealing with our unconscious biases, promoting diversity in our leadership positions and creating respectful and inclusive spaces that we can help build a Canada where who you love, where you came from, what colour your skin is or any other factor that can be used to deny full and unfettered participation in our society is deemed to be irrelevant.

Let us make sure that we, in this chamber, demonstrate the welcome, compassion and respect for each other that all those living in every corner of this country deserve.

Honourable senators, the inquiry put forth by Senator Woo serves as a poignant reminder of the invaluable contributions made by Chinese Canadians throughout our history. It also calls on us to confront the persistent prejudices faced by Canadians of Asian descent, mindful of the historical context marked by the adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act a century ago. Let us unite in celebration, remembrance and a shared commitment to building a Canada where diversity is cherished, equality is upheld and every individual can thrive.

Colleagues, Canada was built by hands of many colours, and our anthem is sung by voices of many tongues. We are the richer for all of these.

Thank you, honourable senators, for your attention. May we pledge to work together to create a more inclusive and equitable Canada free from prejudice and exclusion as we honour the contributions of all Canadians, past and present, and may we pledge to do that here in this chamber. Thank you.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.