Voting. It’s complicated. Canada has been reluctant to share her treasures, at least to its non-male, non-white peoples.
Nearly 70 years ago, Canada’s Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian people won the right to vote in Canada. It had been a long time coming. You may know the story of the Famous Five*, who fought for and won women’s voting rights in 1921, but did you know that it took 27 more years for Asians to gain the right vote?
This is the story of Kew (K.) Dock Yip and Irving Himel, and their work to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is more formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923. There could be no consideration of voting for Chinese while this piece of legislation was on the books, banning Chinese from entering the country on the sole basis of race.
To understand Yip and Himel’s achievement, it’s important to set the stage and go back to the Dominion of Canada, circa 1800s.
Prior to 1885, Chinese workers had been actively sought. Andrew Onderdonk hired 6000 Chinese labourers from 1800-1885 to build the most dangerous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway in BC. Chinese workers staffed the CPR Steamships and worked in the gold mines. Before 1885, Chinese people were free to travel to and from China, and many men took advantage of the opportunity to work in Canada to support their families in China. For many, this self-imposed exile was the only way to support a family in a country severed by political upheaval, war, crime, and drought. Working in Canada was no dream: wages were poor, and conditions were harsh. In response, British Columbia enacted successive waves of anti-Chinese legislation, all designed to contain and deter its unwanted Chinese population.
On July 20, 1885, the railway having been completed, the rising anti-Chinese sentiment and fears of the “yellow peril” caused Canada to implement the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885. A CAD$50 head tax was levied on all incoming Chinese immigrants. This tax would be doubled to $100 in 1900, and then raised to its height of $500 in 1903. As Arlene Chan wrote in her book The Chinese Head Tax:
James Don’s father paid $500 each for his wife and 5 year old son. It took 17 years for his father to repay the loan.
No other immigrants to Canada were subjected to a head tax.
It was a hard year to be Chinese. The Electoral Franchise Act, 1885, explicitly removed voting rights for the Chinese (and Indians) two weeks earlier. Said Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald:
Persons of Chinese origin ought not to have a vote because they had no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations.
The Prime Minister was not alone in his anti-Chinese fears. In 1922, Judge Emily Murphy wrote in her book The Black Candle:
Anyone who has lived in British Columbia knows that where the Chinese have their own districts, much [opium] smoking is indulged in.
And lastly, the Native Sons of British Columbia, who wrote:
Native Sons of British Columbia are unequivocally opposed to extending the franchise to the Asiatic races.
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, built on, and expanded, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885, effectively closing the borders to all Chinese. Those men that had families in China were thus prevented from seeing them for decades, or ever. The beleaguered Chinese community endeavoured to take care of its large population of rootless men. Depression, drug abuse, and suicide took their grim tolls on the community.
Fast forward to 1942, to the Queen’s Own Rifles Reserves, where two lawyers happened to share a tent: K. Dock Yip and Irving Himel.
The two lawyers are hanging around base camp, recovering, when they hatch a plan to fight injustice.
Himel, I want to do the Immigration Act. I want to do immigration work. They won’t let the Chinese in. – K. Dock Yip
We have to repeal that law. – Irving Himel
To help them achieve this goal, Yip and Himel eventually formed The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in November, 1946.
On that Committee were:
- Dr. Armstrong, United Church
- Cardinal McQuigan, Catholic Church
- Judge Arthur Martins
- Colonel David Croll, Liberal MP
- Dr. Neyes, Chinese Church
- Dr. Ngai, Chinese medical doctor
- Irving Himel, lawyer
- K. Dock Yip, Canada’s first Chinese lawyer
Eventually, the Committee grew to be 79 members. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Vancouver News-Herald began supporting the movement. Womens’ groups and political groups, labour and trade councils, and religious groups joined the call for change. It took five years from that day in the tent when two reservists decided to tackle Canada’s racist immigration policies, but Canada repealed the Chinese Immigration Act on May 14, 1947.
Asked about the delegation to Ottawa, Yip said:
He ran all the manoeuvres, Himel. Me, Kew Dock Yip, I’m the secretary… Irving Himel asked me to lead this movement, but I thought Dr. Ngai would do it better… so I deferred the position to him and he did a very good job. The [immigration] law was finally repealed in 1947.
In 1948, the Dominion Elections Act was also repealed, allowing Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians the right to vote in federal elections.
The Chinese in Canada finally had the right to call themselves Canadians. The fight for civil rights would be next.
Irving Himel continued his legal work on civil liberties, later becoming a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. His work against restrictive covenants (clauses in real estate contracts preventing property sales “to Jews and other perceived undesirables”) resulted in them being declared unlawful. (For more on restrictive covenants and real estate in Canada, see The history of my grandparents’ house.)
K. Dock Yip continued his work as an attorney for 47 years, served as a two-time trustee of the Toronto School Board, was a leader in his community, and found time to be a movie actor on the side. In 1998, Yip was awarded the Law Society Medal for outstanding service to the legal profession.
*Observant readers will note that Emily Murphy is both lauded and criticized in this piece.
I have known bits of this story my whole life, but the online resources to flesh out the facts have only appeared in the past few years, thanks to the work of dedicated Canadian scholars and trusts, teachers, citizens, and politicians. Canada no longer ignores its racist past in our collective bid to work for a better future. In a small way, this is my story, too. K. Dock Yip was my great-uncle.
Chan, A. (2014). The Chinese head tax and anti-Chinese immigration policies in the 20th century. Toronto, ON:James Lorimer & Company Ltd.
Chan, A. (2017, July 3). Chinese Immigration Act. Retrieved from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Historical reference to discriminatory legislations towards Chinese-Canadians. Retrieved from CBC.
(A) history of the vote in Canada: Chapter 2: From a privilege to a right 1867-1919. (2016, Oct 5). Retrieved from Elections Canada.
Huang, E. (1992). Chinese Canadians: voices from a community. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.
Irving Himel (2017). Retrieved from Canada’s Human Rights History.
K. Dock Yip. (2017, Feb 15). Retrieved from Wikipedia.
Kew Dock Yip (2011). Retrieved from Road to Justice.
Lesson 3: Historical perspectives of Chinese Canadians in BC: Archive package: Loss of the franchise. Bamboo Shoots. Retrieved from Open School of BC.
Murphy, E. (1922). The Black Candle.
Raphael, B. “Irving Himel never recognized.” Toronto Star (2005 Nov 18).