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It is said that for every mile of track of the Canadian Pacific Railway, there is one dead Chinese immigrant who helped build that line.
The CPR was an important part of the nation building of Canada, and the Chinese workers who came to Canada’s shores were an integral part of that.
After helping to connect our nation, Chinese and other Asian residents of Canada were not rewarded.
They were labelled as job stealers, drug addicts, sources of sin and told they were not wanted in Canada.
For decades, they could not vote, nor bring their families to Canada. Every measure was put in place to stop any Asian immigrants from reaching Canada.
Those that lived here were subjected to abuse, discrimination and, in the case of Vancouver in 1907, several days of destruction and attacks.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
The history of Chinese immigrants to Canada, or what will be Canada, begins with a group of Chinese workers who landed in Nootka Sound as part of Captain John Meares’ expedition to establish a year-round settlement in 1788. At the time, the Pacific Fur Trade was highly profitable. Britain, Russia, and Spain all wanted to claim the Pacific coast of future Canada for themselves. Meares’ hoped by building a settlement, he could claim it for Britian.
In Nootka Sound, with his Chinese workers, he built a dockyard, fort and a ship named North West America.
Feeling the venture was successful, Meares brought another 70 Chinese workers but shortly after their arrival in 1789, the Spanish seized the area and imprisoned the Chinese men.
It is not known what happened to them, but they hold the distinction as the first Chinese immigrants to the land that became Canada.
Our story now jumps ahead 70 years to 1858 when the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush began in the Colony of British Columbia. News of gold spread around the world, and in China where poverty was rampant at the time, a new life over the Pacific was enticing.
The Chinese came to call the western region of North America Gold Mountain and they flocked to the Colony of British Columbia to find their fortune.
Barkerville sprang up as a community in the interior of British Columbia, just to the east of Quesnel. It was Canada’s first Chinese community with over half the population coming from China. The community only existed for a few years, but it holds an important place in the history of Chinese immigration to Canada.
By 1860, it was estimated that the Chinese population of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, then two separate colonies, was 7,000.
Once the gold rush died down, so too did Chinese immigration.
Then, a new opportunity for work sprang up, the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In 1880, a man named Andrew Onderdonk was brought in as a construction contractor to build large sections of the British Columbia portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He had success doing so in the United States, where he heavily used Chinese workers. His use of Chinese workers allowed him to save money, and replace any workers who died with others willing to work in dangerous conditions.
The Canadian government was eager to finish the CPR and British Columbia was by far the most difficult portion.
To meet the demand and complete the track on time, while saving money, Onderdonk brought in Chinese workers from China and the United States.
Each Chinese worker was hired to complete 320 kilometres of track, through some of the most difficult terrain in North America. They were paid less than 50 per cent of what Caucasian workers were paid and were put to work in the most dangerous jobs. They lived in simple tents in their own area of work camps, away from the other white workers. These meager accommodations were their home in the hot summer, and cold winters. They had their own cooks, and medical care was non-existent.
From 1880 to 1885, 17,000 Chinese workers completed the British Columbia section of the CPR. Of those, at least 700 were killed due to terrible work conditions. It is possible, and likely, that the number is even higher.
As soon as the railroad was finished in 1885, Canada turned its back on those who had worked to build the very thing that connected the country.
The Chinese Immigration Act was passed mere months before the railroad was finished, putting a head tax on all Chinese immigrants, amounting to $50. When this tax didn’t seem to slow Chinese immigration, it was increased to $100 in 1900 and then $500 in 1903. The last increase was the equivalent to 10 years’ salary for a Chinese railway worker.
This slowed the immigration of the Chinese to Canada, which made many white residents of Canada happy, but they wanted to also do something about the Asian immigrants already in the country.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were roughly 16,000 Chinese immigrants living in British Columbia, along with 8,000 Japanese and 5,000 South Asians.
The Asian residents of Canada worked in a variety of industries including service, timber and fishing. Like with the railroad, they worked for low pay in poor conditions, and that was if they could even get hired.
Some Japanese immigrants worked at the Hastings Mill, which they called otasuke geisha, meaning saviour company, as it was one of the few places hiring Asian immigrants. Some Chinese residents also worked at the mill, and by 1886, a small Chinatown was developing. That Chinatown become not only the oldest in Canada, but also the largest.
The white settlers in British Columbia were not happy about Asian immigrants working jobs that they wanted to go to white workers. They also labelled the Asian residents as immoral, and Chinatown was called a den of evil and sin. The Asian immigrants were accused of getting white women addicted to opium, and selling them into sexual slavery, with no evidence to support this.
What the white residents didn’t realize, was that the capitalist upper class of British Columbia was using divide and conquer to keep wages low and to make more money off the backs of not only Asian immigrants, but white residents as well. By putting the white residents against the Asian residents, the company owners ensured they were not a target if violence were to break out, and they could pay the white workers less as long as it was still slightly more than Asian workers.
Despite the racism and discrimination, many people made good lives for themselves, and Chinatown in Vancouver continued to grow with a variety of shops, stores, homes and more.
Asian immigration also continued. In 1907, 11,440 new immigrants from Asia arrived in British Columbia. The Chinese Head Tax had reduced the immigration from China, with only 1,266 Chinese immigrants arriving. Sikhs made up 2,049 of the settlers, while over 8,000 came from Japan.
As the number of Asian immigrants increased in British Columbia, anti-Asian sentiment grew to a fever pitch.
There was also a moral panic, so to speak, with the influx of Asian immigrants. Due to the cost of immigration, most immigrants from Japan and China were male. It was simply too expensive to bring an entire family over. Those immigrants came to Canada and didn’t see their spouse or children for years, even a decade or more.
The loneliness was sometimes dealt with through gambling and the use of opium. White residents felt their behaviour was immoral and could spread throughout the country. The residents conveniently forgot, or ignored, the immoral behaviour of other white residents who drank, took drugs, or gambled themselves.
All of this came together to create a growing powder keg in British Columbia.
Early in 1907, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway asked Ottawa to let it bring in 10,000 Japanese workers to build a line in Northern B.C. As news of this request spread, the number of Japanese became inflated by word of mouth, from 10,000, to 50,000. There were claims that the Japanese would soon control Vancouver before too long.
Attorney General, and future premier of British Columbia, William Bowser stated publicly his opposition to the request, as did other politicians in British Columbia.
Various citizens decided to band together to stop what they saw as a takeover by Asian immigrants at this point.
On Aug. 12, 1907, the Canadian chapter of the Anti-Asiatic League was formed in Vancouver. The League had the support of several prominent citizens in Vancouver, including Alexander Bethune, mayor of Vancouver and co-founder of the organization. In that first meeting 400 white men showed up to join.
That organization wasted no time in spreading hate.
In the organization’s third meeting, the members decided to plan a parade for Sept. 7, which included a band to draw attention to the march. The plan was for the parade to go to Vancouver City Hall, located between Chinatown and Japantown. The use of city hall had been provided by Mayor Bethune, and several city councilors.
The goal of the parade was simple, address the issues the members saw with Asian immigration. The event was advertised in the newspaper, and it did not take long for it to become one of the biggest events the City of Vancouver had ever seen to that point.
When that day came, 4,000 Canadian and Americans marched along the street to their destination at city hall, while the band played Rule Britannia.
It was at city hall that several speakers were planned, including local religious leaders who enflamed the crowd against the perceived menace of opium on white women. One speaker came from New Zealand, where there were also anti-Chinese organizations springing up.
By the time they reached City Hall, the crowd had swelled to nearly 10,000 people. Some estimates put the size of the mob at 30,000 to 50,000 people. Given that at the time Vancouver had a population of about 30,000 to 50,000 people, it is likely the 10,000 figure is more accurate.
One speaker began talking about the Bellingham Riot, which had occurred on Sept. 5, 1907, and left several Chinese citizens of that American city injured. In fact, several Chinese citizens of that community 40 kilometres south of the border fled to Vancouver to escape the growing violence in the United States.
Little did they know, they were walking straight into another violent situation.
As that speaker praised the Bellingham Riot, the members of the audience heard glass shattering.
The sound came from a store window in Chinatown that was smashed with a rock by a teenager.
Almost immediately, with that one smashed window, the crowd that stood listening to a speaker devolved into a mob bent on mayhem.
The mob turned its attention to Chinatown and started to throw bottles and rocks through windows. The goal was to destroy any Chinese-owned stores and homes.
They succeeded in that. It was reported that every single window in Chinatown was destroyed by the rioters.
Since most landlords in Chinatown were Caucasians, most of the building damaged were owned by white citizens, rather than Asian citizens.
Once the mob had smashed its way through Chinatown, the attention was turned towards Japantown.
The rioters began to march into Japantown like an army and were met by armed Japanese residents who had seen the destruction in Chinatown and were not about to be caught by surprise. They had set up barricades to prevent the rioters from getting into their neighbourhood.
Four waves of attacks came from the rioters over the course of a day and a half. Each time, the rioters were pushed back by Japanese residents but over 50 stores and businesses in Japantown were still vandalized.
To deal with the mounting violence, all off-duty police officers were called in, 24 in all, as well as the fire brigade. They were hopelessly outmatched and could do little to stop the violence.
After Chinatown and Japantown, the mob then turned towards the Punjabi area of the city, believing it would be an easy target.
You know how in movies, the bully in a school will suddenly find someone who is more than a match for them?
Well, that is what happened when the white rioters descended upon the Punjabi area of Vancouver.
Many of the Punjabi residents had come to Canada after they retired. What did they retire from you ask?
They retired from their service in the British Army, where they served in Sikh and Punjabi regiments for years.
As the rioters began their attack against the Punjabis, they quickly found out that not only were the Punjabi residents far more skilled in hand-to-hand combat, but they still had their service muskets and bayonets, or at the very least, ceremonial daggers and swords in their households.
It was not long before the white rioters were fleeing from the Punjabi area, barely escaping injury.
Skirmishes in the city continued for two days, leaving Chinese and Japanese residents to pick up the pieces of their businesses and homes.
When the Vancouver Daily World published its next edition after the riot on Sept. 9, it blazed across its masthead the words “Orientals Buy Arms.”
Then below that,
“Hundreds of Asiatics purchase rifles, revolves and knives.”
Once it had inflamed the white residents into thinking that the Asian residents of Vancouver were going to war, it wrote in a much small headline on the front page,
“Demonstration against Asiatics terminates in anti-Oriential riot. Mob of boys and young men sweeps through Chinese and Japanese quarters smashing windows.”
The article about the riot portrayed the mob as just a few bad apples who got out of hand. A mere 20 to 30 people out of the 10,000 who just walked along with the bad apples to see what they were going to do, so to speak.
It goes without saying that the third headline on a page is the one of least importance. The Vancouver Daily World wanted to frighten people against the Asian residents before it briefly explained why those Asian residents might want weapons to protect themselves. Even then, it portrayed the Asian residents arming themselves as an overreaction to a few bad apples.
Not knowing if their homes and businesses were to be attacked again, Japanese, and Chinese residents patrolled their neighbourhoods. They also held a general strike, refusing to open their stores or work at the local sawmills and fisheries.
The Daily World wrote,
“Chinese stoicism has given way to complete and angry agitation. Domestic servants in homes and clubs failed to turn up for duty. Sawmills are minus their Chinese crews and the Mongolian car cleaners and yard gangs are discussing racial ructions in Canton Alley and Shanghai Street.”
Vancouver quickly stopped all weapons sales and began to fine and arrest any Asian residents who were carrying weapons, even if they were carrying them out of self-defense due to the riot a few days previous.
Japanese residents also marched to a public meeting on Powell Street and demanded reparation from the city. Mayor Bethune told them that he would address their concerns. The irony of a co-founder of the Anti-Asiatic League telling Japanese residents he would address their concerns was likely not lost on many in the audience.
As news spread around Canada, various newspapers and official gave their opinions on the riot.
Member of Parliament for Vancouver, Robert Macpherson, stated publicly that British Columbia was to be a white man’s country and all Asian immigration to it had to stop, sending a telegram to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to that effect.
The Toronto Globe wrote an editorial condoning the violence against the Chinese and Japanese residents of Vancouver, stating,
“Canadian institutions, conditions and standards must be shown worthy of being preserved from the deteriorating influences of foreign admixtures.”
Overseas, the London Daily Mail was praiseful of the Japanese, due to the need for good relations between Britian and Japan, while stating that such prejudice against the Chinese was rare in Canada.
A few days after the riot, the Canadian government made a quick apology to the Japanese government. At the time, the Japanese were allies of Britian, and by extension, Canada. As well, Canada wanted to increase trade with Japan, so they kept their blame focused on the Americans. They stated Americans from Bellingham, Washington had come up to Canada after their own riot, to start another one in Vancouver.
In the aftermath of the riot, federal Labour Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, was appointed to conduct a Royal Commission on the events. King would become Canada’s longest serving prime minister at over 21 years.
Another fact about King?
In 1923, two years after he first became prime minister, he enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act that restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada. It remained in place until May 14, 1947, one year before King resigned as prime minister and went into retirement.
He was no fan of Asian immigrants to Canada.
In the end, the Commission compensated the Chinese Canadian community with $26,000 for damages, and $9,000 to Japanese Canadians.
The compensation for Japanese Canadians came quickly, due to pressure on England from Japan. For Chinese Canadians, they waited months to receive any money.
Of the 10,000 in the crowd, hundreds of whom caused damages, only three rioters were charged, and one was convicted. That rioter was convicted not for attacking Chinese or Japanese residents, but because he punched a police officer.
On Jan. 25, 1908, Canada took another step-in response to the race riot, which was banning Japanese from immigrating to Canada through an informal agreement with Japan.
Under the agreement, Japan agreed to only allow 400 labourers and domestic servants from Japan to immigrate to Canada.
It did not take long for Japanese immigrants to find a loophole in the agreement. If they went to Hawaii first, they did not fall under the jurisdiction of Japan. So, they could migrate from Hawaii instead without a problem.
To close that loophole, the federal government created the continuous journey regulation. This required that all immigrant ships coming to Canada make one continuous journey to the shores of the country. That was no problem for anyone coming from Europe, but for immigrants from Asia, their ships always stopped in at least Hong Kong or Hawaii to get more supplies and fuel, before going across the Pacific. This created a de-facto restriction on Asian immigration to Canada.
At the time, immigrants from India were British subjects and part of the British Empire. Yet, any means possible was put in place to prevent their immigration to another part of the British Empire, Canada.
From 1908 until the 1940s, South Asian immigration to Canada did not exceed 80 people per year.
In 1908, British Columbia passed a law preventing all South Asian men from voting in provincial elections. Since a person’s eligibility for federal elections came from provincial voting lists, this also resulted in South Asians not being able to vote in federal elections.
As for the Asiatic Exclusion League, it went dormant after the 1907 riot but returned in the early-1920s. Some estimates put its membership in 1921 at 40,000. It eventually died away for good by the 1930s.
The investigation of the riot also led to the first official anti-drug law in Canadian history. As part of the report put out by William Lyon Mackenzie King, opium use was banned in Canada because of the public outcry over white residents becoming addicted due to supposed Asian peddlers.
We may think we are far removed from such riots and anti-Asian hate.
Sadly, that is not the case.
Anti-Asian hate has existed throughout our history, but things went up a notch during the COVID-19 pandemic when Asian-Canadians were subjected to verbal, and sometimes, physical abuse because of China’s connection to the outbreak.
In 2021, there were 943 reports of racist incidents against Asian-Canadians in Canada. This was a 47 per cent rise over 2020. These figures came from Project 1907, a reference to the riot, and the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter.
Between 2020 and 2021, there was a 42 per cent increase in Asian-Canadians being spat on or coughed at, a 348 per cent increase in workplace discrimination, a 187 per cent increase in denial of service and a 119 per cent increase in robbery or theft.
Sorry for all the facts and figures, but it’s important to get the point across.
In response, the federal government announced an investment of $85 million over four years for a new anti-racism strategy and the first-ever Action Plan on Combating Hate.
Let’s hope we can do our part as fellow Canadians to stem the racist tide and prevent a repeat of September 1907 from happening.
Information from CBC, Canadas History, British Columbia An Untold History, White Riot, Wikipedia, Wilfrid Laurier University, BC Labour Heritage Centre, The Conversation, Vancouver Daily World, Library and Archives Canada,