Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · The stories of WWII

An uncertain homecoming, Part II: Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home – 1945-47

Chinese Canadians enlist in WWII, hoping to prove themselves worthy of civil rights, but find not much has changed after the war.

This is Part II of An uncertain homecoming. For Part I, see here.

Throughout this series, I have been thinking about my family, my friends, and the Chinese community as it exists today. I wonder how they feel about our shared history. I wonder if they understand why the old ones don’t talk about the past. I know I’ve pestered everyone around me, asking my questions, my need to know bulldozing their need to forget. For all of you, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was asking. I didn’t know how bad it was.

The Chinese who were there now choose to focus on the positives. Said Veteran and Burma Star recipient Dodson Mah:

We don’t talk much about the war because that’s water under the bridge. We talk about the future. We’re interested in what Canada’s doing now. We fought for this country and we’d like to see it advance.

But for those of us who were not there, let me take you back. It’s not so far, as history goes. Just 72 years.

September 3, 1945 – The missing vote

Canada was still not overly motivated to enfranchise its Asian populations, despite their apparent loyalty. The question in my mind is what made Canada change its mind?

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J.A. Macdonald. 1875. By George Lancefield [1] Library and Archives Canada, via Wikimedia Commons
It may have been partly due to a shift in the national vision over the previous 70 years. In the 1800s, Prime Minister MacDonald had conceived of a Canada populated mostly by the white sons and daughters of Great Britain. In 1885, at the House of Commons, MacDonald said:

…if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite to our wishes; and, in the even balance of parties, they might enforce those Asiatic principles, those immoralities . . . , the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.

Those words were shocking in 1885, but MacDonald could not have known how the words “Aryan race” would resonate after WWII.

Canada may also have been influenced by getting a seat at the newly founded United Nations (June, 1945). Canada helped draft the United Nations Charter, which reads in part:

Article 1.2 – To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace

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L. St. Laurent signs the UN Charter on behalf of Canada. 26 June 1945. Photo Credit: UN Photo/McLain per Creative Commons Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Canada may even have had the grace to blush in signing a Charter that expressly espoused equal rights and self-determinations of peoples while denying those same rights to its own people.

Perhaps Canada finally took notice of the petitions. Chinese associations were joined by veterans groups in lobbying for a review of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, and for the right to vote. They would need to continue to lobby for free immigration until 1967.

Canada may eventually have come to recognize and correct its hypocrisy, in time. For example, Aboriginals gained the right to vote federally in 1960 – fifteen years after WWII, a war in which some 3000 Canadian Aboriginals enlisted. Fortunately for Canada’s Asian populations, the push for social change included two veterans-cum-lawyers: Irving Himel and K. Dock Yip. A movement needs its champions. For their remarkable story, see my post here.

Two Years Later: Postwar Canada, 1947

In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed. That’s the good news.

How did it feel? Veteran Frank Wong said:

Many veterans came back to Canada and were writing letters saying we should have the right to vote. Finally, they agreed and bestowed upon us all the rights enjoyed by every other citizen of Canada. They also rescinded the Exclusion Act, which did not allow Chinese men to bring their wives over. We were quite happy to finally receive the rights and privileges that we should have had all along.

Established Chinese Canadians (the astute reader will note this is the first time I’ve been able to use the term) were now able to bring over their wives and unmarried children under 18 years old. (Did you notice the age restriction? By setting the barrier to under 18 years old, the Canadian lawmakers were specifically excluding the families they had split apart with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. The children affected by the Act were now at least 24 years old, and barred from joining their fathers.)

The not-so-good news is that Canadian borders were still not exactly open for Chinese immigration. Canada wasn’t ready to change its mind on that front.

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Prime Minister King, May 1, 1947. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

As Prime Minister King said in the House of Commons on May 1, 1947:

I wish to state quite definitely that, apart from the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act … the government has no intention of removing the existing regulations respecting Asiatic immigration unless and until alternative measures of effective control have been worked out.

Although the Act was repealed, the immigration machinery ground on. Canada had fought a war against Germans, Italians, and the Japanese, but only the Asians were considered to still be in need of immigration control. There remained barriers to entry and exit. Until 1953, the Chinese who wished to travel outside of Canada and hoped for reentry had to apply for a C.I.9 Certificate of Leave – like a reverse visa – before leaving the country.

As Prime Minister King said,

…the people of Canada do not wish as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population.

So, Canada had a problem. On the one hand, as a member of the United Nations, Canada had sworn to uphold equal rights, and had pursued increased economic ties with Asian countries immediately after the war. On the other hand, Canada doubted that it was possible for the Chinese to assimilate at all.

As A.R. Menzies, of the Far Eastern Division of the Department of External Affairs, Canada said in 1947:

(a) the lower standard of living accepted by Asian immigrants challenged the position of established labour groups (b) the establishment of distinct Asian communities undermined the established moral and social patterns of Canadian society; (c) such Asian communities might (have) become a menace to national security in times of national emergency (d) it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.

Chinese Canadians begin their takeover… of university degrees

Also in 1947, BC finally granted the provincial franchise to its Chinese citizens. (Japanese and Aboriginals had to wait until 1949.) Besides the vote, Chinese people were now free to leave the laundries, sawmills, and restaurants and practice as lawyers, doctors, accountants, pharmacists, and all other professional designations.

Prior to 1947, the restriction against Chinese had been the voters’ lists, so if you couldn’t vote, ipso facto you also couldn’t be a professional.

WWII veteran Sgt. Louey King said:

Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.

Next chapter: An uncertain homecoming, Part III: The borders creak open

Sources

Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.

 

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