After WWII, the Chinese gained the vote, but waited a generation for the full suite of civil rights. Regardless, there was a feeling of optimism amongst veterans – that having unequivocally proved the loyalty and worth of the Chinese, the recognition and granting of full equal rights was inevitable. They were right. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms held Canada accountable to the veterans (and all Canadians).
It just took 37 years and a baker’s dozen of Canadian parliaments to make it happen.
A flood of firsts
As I look at the decade between 1947 and 1957, it is as though Chinese Canadians burst through the barriers to enjoy a flood of firsts. For most, the BC election on June 15, 1949 would be the first time they were able to cast a ballot. Among the voters was 88 year old Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese man born in Canada. He’d cast his first ballot in 1890, and then waited 59 years to cast the second.
Now freed to live their lives, the Chinese pursued ordinary achievements that were remarkable only because they were being done by Chinese. They attended university, pursued professional designations, ran for election, and were called as jurors:
- The first Chinese Canadian juror, Jack Chan, served jury duty in September, 1950.
- The first Chinese Canadian architect, Harry Lee, was registered in June, 1951.
- The last Chinese pushcart peddler, Wai Chan, retired his cart in 1953.
- North America’s first Chinese Lions Club began in Vancouver in December, 1953.
- The first Chinese Canadian female lawyer, Margaret Jean Gee, was called to the Bar in May, 1954. (Maggie Gee went on to become a pilot and a nuclear physicist.)
- The first successful Chinese Canadian politician was Douglas Jung, formerly Sgt. Jung of Canadian Military Intelligence, who was elected as a Member of Parliament on June 10, 1957.
A.R. Menzies could not have been more wrong about the Chinese when he said, “…it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.” It seems to me that once the legal system of chokeholds was removed, the Chinese pursued assimilation beyond Menzies’ fevered dreams.
However, immigration was another matter. Even today, the subject of immigration is contentious. The questions earlier posed by J.A. Macdonald and W.L.M. King about the general composition of the Canadian population – who it should comprise, and what values it should espouse – exist today. In the years immediately following WWII, the hot button race was Asiatics. (The term Asiatics as used in the 1950s was often used loosely and broadly, and came to be a metaphor for all non-white, would-be immigrants from India and Asia.) There is a word for the fear of people who are different and unknown: xenophobia. I think Canada has always had a touch of it. Perhaps that’s why P.E. Trudeau risked revising the Canadian Constitution to give us the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to look at Canada before the Charter.
1947-1967 – Canada plays a shell game with immigration
The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed, only to be replaced by Order in Council (OIC) PC 2115. The name had changed, but the major barriers to immigration remained in place, like a legal shell game where you have to work hard to find what you seek.
Prime Minister King was clear in his address to the House of Commons in 1947:
There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that 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. Any considerable Oriental immigration would, moreover, be certain to give rise to social and economic problems of a character that might lead to serious difficulties in the field of international relations.
In his book The Chinese in Vancouver, Wing Chung Ng wrote:
The restrictive nature of Canadian immigration policy towards the Chinese between 1947 and 1967 is indisputable, and the tendency among scholars to gloss over this period of Chinese immigration history is unfortunate.
OIC PC 2115 sought to navigate the tricky legal and political ground of 1950. As a signatory to the UN’s Charter espousing equal rights for all people, Canada was becoming increasingly embarrassed by the discriminatory treatment of its Asian populations. On the world stage, trade agreements with Asia were hampered by the perceptions that Canada was racist. Even BC-based Members of Parliament argued for less obviously racist policies. However, Canada still wanted to control the makeup of its population in favour of British, Irish, French, and American immigrants, and so continued to restrict immigration from Asian countries.
As noted in a 2003 University of Toronto Law school mock trial, lead counsel Novogrodsky wrote:
Until 1962, Chinese immigration was restricted to sponsored relatives of Chinese Canadians; potential Chinese immigrants were subject to Order in Council P.C. 2115 which restricted Chinese immigration to a citizen’s wife and unmarried children under the age of 18. Thus, between 1947 and 1962, grown children, aged parents, siblings, and nieces of Chinese Canadians continued to be excluded from entering Canada.
To me, it feels as though Canada wanted to grow beyond its old friendships with England and form new alliances, but would have to drop the parochial attitudes it had developed along the way. If Canada was going to be accepted as an actor on the world stage, it would have to adopt some of the social compacts espoused by its more urbane peers.
Habits and belief systems die hard. Often, they take a generation of external pressure to change course. And so it seems that while the Chinese veterans had proved themselves worthy of enfranchisement, and the Chinese had donated their limited resources to the war effort and proved their worth as citizens, Canada continued to look upon their family members living outside the borders with overt hostility.
The question that comes up for me is why? King had said that Canada did not want to change the “fundamental composition” of the Canadian population, but didn’t elaborate on the specific aspects he felt were at risk.
Unpacking the xenophobia
Fear. We all know how it feels – how it short circuits the higher level reasoning functions in the brain and triggers the body’s primeval decision-making capabilities. When we make decisions based on fear, we are allowing our emotions – our guts – to assume the driver’s seat. Fear is a great driver in a bear attack. It’s not so great at running the country. When I think about that period of time, roughly 1890-1967, it seems that fear shaped many of Canada’s political decisions. Loosening fear’s grip on the brain is a slow process of unpacking: what am I afraid of, and why? Applying that principle to Canada, then – what was Canada so afraid of, and why?
Fear is not logical. It’s quite possible to hold two opposing fears at the same time. When I look at the interlocking web of systemic fears, I see the Chinese being placed in an untenable position in every instance. This is a hard revelation for me, because I was raised with the idea that if we work hard and don’t argue, we will prove ourselves worthy of change. I now realize that working hard and staying silent does the opposite: it supports the status quo. (It is not lost on me that working hard and staying silent does not support a woman’s fight for equality, either.) So what were those fears, exactly? I will offer my list of 10:
- Fear of a shift in social standing. Any change to a system that does not equally recognize its participants installs a fear in the group being unequally rewarded. An upward shift in social status is an external recognition of power, and those who sit at the top fight bitterly to keep all the power they’ve got. This is still true, and can be see in any social grouping, from mean girls to old boy’s clubs.
- Racial fear. For a century or more, Canada had convinced itself that the Chinese were an inferior race. Having forced the Chinese to live in slums and in extreme poverty, Canada felt justified in accusing the Chinese of being foreign, alien, and backwards.
- Religious fear. Canada feared that the Chinese did not believe in, never mind uphold, Christian values.
- Economic fear. Those who profited from their ability to pay Chinese workers less – in many cases, a lot less – than other workers feared any change to a system which made them rich.
- More economic fear. Being forced to work for low wages made the Chinese vulnerable to criticism from the workers unable to compete, and so while employers feared any changes that would force them to award equal wages, workers feared any group who was willing to work for less. They’re stealing our jobs.
- Fear of criminal activity. As floridly written by Janey Canuck (real name: Emily Murphy) in The Black Candle, Canada worried that the Chinese supported themselves on the proceeds of drug trafficking.
- Legal fear. Having put itself squarely between man and wife, parent and child, Canada worried that the Chinese would try to skirt the laws in order to reunite their families.
- Fear of civil disobedience. Canada observed the riots taking place in the US and wondered if it would see similar unrest.
- Political fear. Having gone to extremes to bar the Chinese from feeling like citizens, Canada worried that the Chinese would feel closer kinship to other countries: China, Taiwan, or the Philippines.
- Sexual fear. Canada’s fears even extended into the bedroom: having prevented Chinese men from reuniting with their families, and marriageable Chinese women from immigrating, thus creating an unintended group of married and single bachelors, Canada feared interracial relationships between Chinese men and white women. (The Women and Girls Protection Act, S.B.C. 1923, c.76 was in effect from 1923-1968, and stipulated that any Chinese business owner was required to apply for a licence for the right to employ a white woman.) There does not appear to have been any laws regarding Chinese women and white men.
1967 – Merit, not race
In 1967, Canada enacted Order in Council (OIC) PC 1967-1616.
OIC PC 1967 represents a major shift in Canada’s goals concerning immigration. Rather than judge future citizens on the basis of whether or not they were born in England, Canada now judged applicants on a set of nine objective criteria:
- training and education
- existing demand for their job skills
- acquired skills for employment
- secured employment
- facility with English or French
- existing relatives in Canada
- potential for work in their preferred Canadian destination
The last remaining barrier to Chinese immigration had fallen.
1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. Since 1982, it has been illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, age, and religion. It is illegal to prevent Canadians from a peaceful protest, or from being judged on the company we keep. All Canadians may vote, or run for office. The Charter made many previous laws illegal or obsolete, such as the law requiring the Chinese to apply for a reentry visa if they wished to leave the country. Canadians are free to live wherever they wish in the country, and pursue gainful employment. There is much more, besides. The Charter lies at the bedrock of Canadian law, is a part of the Canadian Constitution, and fulfilled the promise made by Canada when signing the 1945 UN Charter of equal rights and self-determination of all peoples.
For the Chinese, it has been a long road to achieve a simple goal: to be a Canadian, no hyphens, no explanations. The law has dramatically shifted from a web of restraints and barriers to entry, to a bulwark against inequality.
As Marjorie Wong wrote in her book The Dragon and the Maple Leaf:
Some of the veterans interviewed insist, and rightly so, that they are “plain Canadians” without qualifications.
For some, WWII was an opportunity. Alex Louie returned from the war and opened the Marco Polo, a restaurant-cum-night club, where he wined and dined clients with acts from Las Vegas. Said Louie:
I just can’t think of a better life now; I mean I’m contented and see all my grandchildren grow up
It’s not a birthright, believe me. Somebody paid for it. – Louey King
Douglas Jung said:
…we thought in our guts that unless we did something like that, we could show to the Canadian people, and to the Canadian government that we were willing to work for everything that we wanted, which was no more than the rights of Canadian privileges, the rights that every other Canadian enjoy.
As Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote:
Canada’s legal responses to this multicultural reality throughout its history can be divided into three general phases. The first phase…is marked by blatant exclusion and subordination. The second phase… was dominated by the goal of “equal opportunity”. The third and most recent phase is characterized by the law positively seeking to enhance the equality and dignity of every individual. This has been called “substantive equality”.
Substantive equality. This is the priceless gift passed to us from our forebears.
I have always been curious about the Chinese men and women who volunteered to fight for a country that so clearly didn’t want them. Why did they do it? What did they dream? Was it worth it? What happened after the war? Even as servicemen, they were not Canadians, but “Allied Aliens.” There are relatively few resources available that focus on this particular piece of history. All but a few veterans are gone, and most took the Official Secrets Act to their graves. My family never talked about it, but I know the following members of my family served, and it is to them that I give my thanks:
- My second cousin, Gnr Poy Wing Yip, K. 10637, Royal Canadian Artillery, Pacific Force
- My uncle, Pte. Dake Wing Yip, K. 7853, Royal Canadian Artillery / Canadian Infantry Corps, India
- My father, Pte Wing See Yip, K. 18793, Canadian Infantry Corp, Pacific Force
In writing this series, I wanted to highlight the authentic voices of the day: from WWII veterans to premiers and prime ministers. This turned out to be ambitious – there are few public sources for the Chinese in their own words. I found a poor substitute for the Chinese voice by trolling hundreds of newspapers, hunting for keywords that became progressively more insulting: Chinese, Asiatic, Celestial, Oriental, chink. Along the way, I encountered a kind of wholesale and casual racism for Asians, Aboriginals, and Africans. In other words, at least from a journalistic perspective, there was little interest in news from the Chinese, only new about the Chinese – a systemic silencing of a race. As I have learned from this series, it is only by working hard and arguing loudly that we will achieve equality. This is my contribution to the fight.
If you’ve hung on with me until now – well done! I know it wasn’t easy. What do you think? Did you learn something new? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.
Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.