Inquiry: Senator Oh'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 — this inquiry was initiated by my colleague Senator Yuen Pau Woo.

First, I would like to share my appreciation for Senator Woo’s initiative in leading this important and timely conversation in the Red Chamber which, as you all know, had a pivotal role in highlighting the profoundly damaging legislation, the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some of our honourable colleagues have already spoken about the Chinese Exclusion Act’s detrimental effects on the Chinese‑Canadian community. I was profoundly touched by the allyship expressed in their speeches regarding this inquiry, such as from Senator Jaffer and Senator McCallum.

Unfortunately, this act’s cruelty is unimaginable to many in this chamber. We know too well that our country’s history is marred with periods of exclusionary and reprehensible actions. Nevertheless, allow me to remind you of the act’s discriminative measures.

In practice, the Chinese Immigration Act prohibited Chinese immigration. As a result, families were torn apart, opportunities were lost and autonomous life was destroyed. Canadians of Chinese descent were also deprived of full citizenship in their home and native land. However, this community never succumbed despite the systemic challenges. Chinese Canadians steadily dismantled and overcame hurdles through incredible resilience and determination.

In 1947, freedom of movement was reclaimed and the right to citizenship was re-established. In 1948, we slowly started to gain the right to vote. In further years, we reconnected with our parents and rebuilt our families. Most importantly, we thrived and contributed to Canada’s economic and social development.

I have no doubt, honourable colleagues, that Canada would not be the great country it is today if not for the resilience of the Chinese-Canadian community and countless other minority communities. Unfortunately, even with all of the time that has passed, lessons can be forgotten and society can regress. Seventy-five years ago, systemic inequality brought about a rise of anti-Chinese racism. Today, following the pandemic and geopolitical issues, the Asian community in Canada finds itself as the target once again.

Over the course of the last three years, an unfortunate sentiment has been shared with me repeatedly. In not so many terms, parallels are felt between our modern day and what took place 100 years ago. Uninvolved individuals of the Asian community feel cornered by politics. They find themselves stranded between their love for their millenary cultural heritage and pointed political language.

I would be remiss if I didn’t caution my parliamentary colleagues, yet again, to take special care to differentiate between our Chinese-Canadian community and those they criticize. Even more distressing is when such critiques are misunderstood by some in the public and taken to an extreme, ultimately being manifested in the form of violence and hate. During the pandemic, for example, we witnessed repeated cases of rhetoric turning into violence in the streets of our great country.

As I have mentioned in the past, I experienced an episode of anti-Asian hate just a few steps outside of Parliament Hill, and I constantly endure hateful comments directed at me in social media channels. That, however, is a sad price that we — parliamentarians — pay for being public figures. Nevertheless, private citizens have not signed up for such harsh criticism and hate. Political critiques are being misinterpreted as judgment toward individuals, and it pains me to hear that many feel personally attacked by the language used by our politicians.

Colleagues, I do believe that we are conscientious by nature here in Canada. Let us remember this great quality and speak accordingly when voicing our political opinion. Just like how our words can be a force for good, they can also be a force for wrong.

The success of Chinese Canadians comes despite the never-ending — and seemingly worsening — anti-Asian racism. Our stories of resilience are many: Take, for example, Lieutenant-Commander William King Lowd Lore who, despite being denied enlistment in the Royal Canadian Navy multiple times, went on to make history as the first officer of Chinese descent in any of the Commonwealth navies.

On another positive note, it is evident that there has been some evolution. I stand here today as an ethnic Chinese senator from Ontario, speaking on an inquiry started by an ethnic Chinese senator from British Columbia, which speaks volumes about how far we have come since 1923.

Indeed, there is still work to be done, and striving for equality and cultural appreciation should be our ceaseless goal. Nevertheless, I am proud to know that despite our past faults, Canada remains a beacon of hope and a haven of multiculturalism and inclusion in today’s world. Thank you, xie xie and meegwetch.

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