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


Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Inquiry No. 11 concerning the historical treatment of our Chinese brothers and sisters. It is critical that we, as senators and citizens of Canada, understand how immigration policies have continued to shape racism within our country.

I want to thank Senator Woo for bringing forward this inquiry, and for highlighting the need to combat contemporary forms of exclusion and discrimination still faced by Canadians of Asian descent today.

Colleagues, in the 1983 book entitled Racial Minorities in Multicultural Canada by editors Peter S. Li and B. Singh Bolaria, author Gurcharn Basran from the University of Saskatchewan states:

Racism in Canada is not the product of the seventies and eighties. It has been practised systematically by the Canadian government and people in general from the very beginning of Canadian history. . . . It has been institutionalized throughout our history. It has been directed mainly against non-white populations in Canada. The chronology of the development of Canada immigration and ethnic policies is the chronology of the discriminatory policies followed by the Canadian government in relation to non-white populations.

The author continues:

Chinese were brought in to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific line. It was difficult to secure white labour for this purpose. Woodsworth, in his book, Strangers Within Our Gates, points out:

“The Chinese, in any number, were first brought in when the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built, in order to work on the construction on that line when it was next to impossible to secure white labour.”

While discussing the contributions of Chinese labour to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, or CPR, John Porter emphasizes:

Without Chinese labour the construction and completion of the CPR would have been indefinitely postponed. Not until 1962 were coloured people from Commonwealth countries looked upon as possible immigrants, except for small numbers who were allowed in to work as domestic servants, an entrance status previously held by lower class British and eastern European females.

The author continues:

There are various examples of institutionalized racism in Canada. Students of Canadian history in general, and those responsible for Canadian immigration policy in particular, are well aware of various pieces of legislation, laws, and practices that discriminate against the non-white and immigrant population. As soon as CPR construction was completed in 1885, and Chinese labour started entering into other occupations, institutional racism began in various forms. . . . A head tax of $50.00 was imposed on Chinese in 1885. It was increased to $100.00 in 1900 and $500.00 in 1903. Other Orientals were also subjected to a head tax, while passage assistance was available to the British immigrants. Chinese and East Indians had to pay a head tax in Canada and their immigration was virtually stopped after 1907. Orientals had no voting rights until World War II and were not allowed to practise certain professions in British Columbia. According to the 1906 Immigration Act, important discretionary powers were given to immigration officers, who used them against non-white immigrants in a ruthless and discriminatory manner. . . . There were race riots in British Columbia in 1907, in which Orientals were attacked and their properties, businesses, and houses destroyed.

In 1907 immigrants from Asia were required to have a minimum of $200.00 in landing money. In 1919 this account was increased to $250.00. In 1930, section 38 of the Immigration Act prohibited the landing in Canada of immigrants of any Asiatic race.

Honourable senators, the following information that I’m going to share with you is based on research done by the Library of Parliament. The first major wave of Chinese immigration began with the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. From 1881 to 1885, more than 15,000 Chinese labourers came to work on the construction of the CPR. Over the course of construction and by the end of 1882, 6,500 of the 9,000 railway workers were Chinese Canadians. They were employed to build the B.C. segment of the railway through the most challenging and dangerous terrain.

Chinese workers were paid a dollar a day, and, from this dollar, they had to pay for their food and gear. White workers were paid $1.50 to $2.50 per day and did not have to pay for provisions. In addition to being paid less while also incurring higher expenses, Chinese workers were given the most dangerous tasks, such as handling the explosive nitroglycerine used to break up solid rock. Due to the harsh conditions they faced, hundreds of Chinese Canadians working on the railroad died from accidents, winter cold, illness and malnutrition. Between 600 and 4,000 Chinese men died working on the CPR.

Although Chinese-Canadian workers faced and overcame great obstacles to help build the CPR, they were left out of the national celebration surrounding its completion. In the iconic and historic photograph of CPR director Donald Alexander Smith driving the ceremonial Last Spike — when the western and eastern segments of the CPR finally met in Craigellachie, British Columbia — all of the Chinese-Canadian workers were cleared from view.

Many people have pointed out the lingering injustice captured in that image. There is not a single Chinese-Canadian worker in the photograph, even though Chinese-Canadian labourers suffered, toiled and died building the railway that has come to symbolize the unity of Canada from coast to coast.

Prime Minister John A. Macdonald acknowledged the necessity of Chinese labour. When the Government of British Columbia tried to ban Chinese immigration in 1882, Macdonald rose in the House of Commons.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you.

Honourable senators, it is now six o’clock. Pursuant to rule 3-3(1), I’m 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 that we not see the clock?

Senator McCallum: He said “. . . either you must have this labour, or you can’t have the railway.”

As construction of the railway neared completion, MacDonald willingly yielded to prejudiced and discriminatory politicians, trade unionists and public opinion. In 1884, he appointed the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration to investigate the restriction of Chinese immigrants.

Honourable senators, institutional racism was perpetuated by the Chinese Immigration Act and more than 100 other policies. They denied Chinese people the right to vote, to practise law or medicine, to hold public office, to seek employment on public works or to own Crown land, among other restrictions. The 1885 Chinese Immigration Act levied the head tax on Chinese immigrants who entered Canada between 1885 and 1923. It was the first legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic background.

During the 38-year period the tax was in effect, approximately 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax. Then, in 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all Chinese immigrants until its repeal in 1947. In 2006, the federal government apologized for the head tax and its other racist immigration policies explicitly targeting Chinese people.

Honourable senators, despite the racist, discriminatory and limiting policies and treatment that Chinese people have faced in Canada, there are many individuals who dedicate their life’s work to upholding and promoting Chinese culture and history in Canada today. These individuals share a common story of perseverance, determination and success, whereby they have overcome discriminatory barriers and left an indelible mark on Canadian society. I will happily highlight a small number of individuals who have accomplished this advocacy through their work in the arts.

Arlene Chan, born in Toronto, is a Chinese Canadian historian, activist, athlete and author. Through her work, she highlights the lived experiences and histories of Toronto’s Chinese community as well as important traditions for the Chinese-Canadian diaspora.

Ms. Chan serves as an adviser for the Chinese Canadian Museum, as well as Toronto Public Library’s Chinese Canadian Archive.

Lan Florence Yee, based out of Toronto and Montreal, is a visual artist and cofounder of the Chinatown Biennial. Lan’s work has been featured at countless museums and exhibits, including the Fonderie Darling, Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Alice Ming Wai Jim is an art historian, curator and professor at Montreal’s Concordia University, where she has held the research chair in ethnocultural art history. Ms. Jim focuses her research on diasporic art in Canada, particularly on the relationships between remix culture and place identity. A founding co-editor of the Journal of Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, Ms. Jim has also held the position of research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies and the Center for the Study of Globalization and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong.

Karen Cho, born in Montreal, is a Chinese-Canadian documentary filmmaker whose credits include the award-winning 2004 National Film Board of Canada documentary entitled In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, which highlights the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada. Her second documentary, Seeking Refuge, tells the stories of five asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Canada. This film is being used as an education and advocacy tool by the Canadian Council for Refugees, as well as other organizations and universities across the country.

Honourable senators, this is just a small sampling of Chinese Canadians who are working to elevate their own culture in the face of growing racism. As a society, we are all aware of the misguided and the unfounded aggression being inflicted on our Chinese neighbours today. Issues surrounding COVID-19, Huawei and the allegations of political interference have all ramped up racist sentiments. These issues have had the effect of “othering” our Chinese brothers and sisters in Canada, forcing them to face escalating levels of racism, discrimination and violence — things that no individual living in Canada should have to endure.

Honourable senators, racism and bias are learned behaviours. They are as unnatural as they are unacceptable. People, oftentimes children, learn these damaging behaviours around the kitchen table or within their friend groups, spending time around these narratives and coming to accept them as truth. However, this story of perpetuating racism does not need to continue. Rather, change can be brought through awareness and education, best done through our academic institutions.

For our youth, this education should be ongoing and continuous, from elementary school right to post-secondary education. However, as we know, unlearning racist behaviour is of great value and necessity for individuals of all ages, including in our society and our chamber. Just as racist attitudes and behaviours can be learned through ignorance, they can be unlearned through education, awareness and a commitment to compassion for all our brothers and sisters, regardless of the colour of their skin or their country of origin. Kinanâskomitin. Thank you.

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