This Week in History


Legalizing Racism

For the week of Monday August 28, 2000

On September 2, 1878, the government of British Columbia (B.C.) passed the first Chinese Tax Act. This Act forced all Chinese Canadians to purchase a $10 licence every three months for the right to live in B.C. This was the first of many laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants.

'Head Tax' Certificate ca. 1912

"Head Tax" Certificate ca. 1912
© Library and Archives Canada / C-96443

Driven by poverty and political upheaval at home, young men from Guangdong province in south China had long sought opportunities overseas, sending money back to their families and returning if possible. Chinese immigrants arrived in Victoria in 1858; thousands later came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway(CPR). After it was finished, many went on to find work in mines and canneries, or as domestic help; some set up small businesses.

These early settlers encountered much racial discrimination. Although employers wanted cheap labour, many Canadians resented the competition. Chinese Canadians could not vote in elections nor buy certain lands. And then there were the hated taxes...

In September 1878, the BC government passed the first Chinese Tax Act, forcing all Chinese Canadians to purchase a $10 license every three months, or else their employers would be charged the same fee. In Victoria, Chinese Canadians went on strike to protest this. Hundreds of Chinese Canadians withdrew their services en mass, disrupting city life. The Act was later revoked, not because it was racist, but because it overstepped the province's authority.

The Gate of Harmonious Interest,<br>at the entrance to Victoria's Chinatown, reads: <br>'To work together with one heart...<br>To help each other achieve harmony.'

The Gate of Harmonious Interest,
at the entrance to Victoria's Chinatown, reads:
"To work together with one heart...
To help each other achieve harmony."

© Parks Canada / J. Butterhill / 1994

Anti-Chinese groups formed to pressure the federal government to stop Chinese immigration. When the CPR was completed in 1885, the federal government introduced the first of a series of Acts to discourage Chinese immigrants. It required all Chinese to pay a $50 "head tax"; in 1900 the tax rose to $100 and in 1904, to $500. On July 1, 1923, the federal government introduced legislation to end Chinese immigration. For Canada, July 1st was Dominion Day; for the Chinese, it was "Humiliation Day."

The community organized itself into groups, such as the Chinese Association, to fight against discrimination. However, change did not occur until the Second World War, when Canada and China were allies and Chinese Canadians died for this country. They fought for the right to vote and to become Canadian citizens, and slowly immigration was resumed.

Chinese Canadians are today an integral part of Canada's multicultural society. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorates the Chinese Construction Workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway, at Yale, B.C. Victoria's Chinatown, the first Chinatown in Canada, and the Chinese Cemetery at Harling Point, Oak Bay, B.C., are also recognized as national historic sites.

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