Canadian laws · Chinese Culture

97 years of history in 6 minutes

Finally in one place, the federal laws regarding voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada.

Voting and Immigration laws, Canada
The federal laws re voting and immigration for the Chinese. © 2017. Past Presence. All rights reserved.


The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

What is it?

This is the law that was enacted to dissuade the Chinese from coming to Canada. There are others, but this was the big one. It was revised three times: in 1900, 1903, and 1923. It’s also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The last revision, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, occurred on July 1st, and is still dubbed “Humiliation Day” by some Chinese Canadians today.

What did it do?

From 1885-1923, it narrowed, then closed the borders to Chinese immigration. There were few exceptions. This is the law that people talk about when they’re asking for redress of the head tax: $50 in 1885; $100 in 1900; $500 in 1903.

Order-in-Council 695, 1931

What is it?

The government passed Order-in-Council 695 during the Depression as a measure to control immigration to Canada.

What did it do?

This law closed Canada’s borders to all immigrants who were not American or British; farmers with money; and the children and wives of current Canadian residents.

Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1947

What is it?

Following WWII, Canada revoked the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, aka the Chinese Exclusion Act.

What did it do?

The specific restrictions applying to all Chinese immigrants as set out in the Chinese Exclusion Act were revoked. However, the restrictions applying to all immigrants not British or American, as set out in Order-in-Council 695, 1931, remained.

Order-in-Council PC 2115, 1950

What is it?

This is an amendment to the series of Orders-in-Council regarding general immigration to Canada, of which Order-in-Council 695, 1931 was a part.

What did it do?

Asians in Canada were permitted to sponsor a wife, husband, or an unmarried minor under the age of 21 years. Children who were separated from their families by the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, were excluded by this provision, being too old by 1950. See the example below.

Order-in-Council 1616, 1967

What is it?

This is a law regarding immigration to Canada, which replaced the previous race-based system with one based on points.

What did it do?

This is the long-awaited law which allowed the Chinese in Canada to sponsor their immediate relatives without restrictions.

The Wong family, an example

To help illustrate the impact of how these immigration laws affected people, here’s an example. Let’s take a hypothetical family – the Wongs – and put them through a scenario experienced by too many Chinese Canadian families.

Mr. and Mrs. Wong are young parents of two children, aged 1 and 2 years old. Unable to find work in China to support his family, Mr. Wong borrows $500 for the head tax and travels to Canada in 1923. He promises his wife that he’ll send for her as soon as he gets established, but the borders close in July. Mr. Wong could return to China, but he owes $500 and there is no work for him at home, so he chooses to stay, and sends every spare dollar home. Mrs. Wong raises their 2 children alone. In 1950, 27 years later,  Mrs. Wong is able to apply to immigrate to Canada as a wife, but her children are too old. She opts to stay in China until her whole family may emigrate together, which happens in 1967.

Mr. and Mrs. Wong are reunited at the age of 62, having spent 44 years apart. The children, now adults of 45 and 46 years old, are reacquainted with a father who is a stranger in all but name.

The impact on a family
A timeline showing the 44 year divide on a hypothetical family. © 2017 Past Presence. All rights reserved.


The Electoral Franchise Act, 1885

What is it?

Federally, the right to vote was restricted to voters who were male, over the age of 21, and British subjects by birth or naturalization. The provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick also required voters to own property. Ontario and New Brunswick further required voters to earn a minimum level of income.

What did it do?

It removed the right to vote from Indians and Chinese.

Repeal of the Dominion Elections Act, 1948

What is it?

The Dominion Elections Act, which used race as a criteria for voting eligibility, was repealed.

What did it do?

Asians in Canada now had the right to vote.


Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982

An uncertain homecoming
By Marc Lostracci [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What is it?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a part of the Canadian Constitution.

What did it do?

The Charter set out in law the specific rights and freedoms of Canadians, among them the right to protections and benefits of the law without discrimination based on race, nation, colour, and ethnic origin.

Why did you write this post?

There’s still a lot of confusion around what happened to the Chinese, particularly regarding the laws of the times. Even people who lived through it tend to conflate the two distinct topics of voting and immigration.


I’m not a lawyer, in case you’re wondering.

Now, with that out of the way, I should also say that I think a more comprehensive picture of voting and immigration would include the provincial laws, but I chose simplicity over completeness. I might tackle provincial and federal laws in a future blog post. Fun fact: BC enacted over 100 laws and regulations concerning the Chinese population. Check out my blog post about it here.


A history of the vote in Canada. Retrieved 28 October 2017 from Elections Canada.

Anti-Chinese immigration laws in Canada. Retrieved 28 October 2017, from Citizen and Immigration Canada.

Canadian immigration acts and legislation, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A review of the acts and legislation 1869-1988, including original document images.

Order-in-Council PC 1931-695, 1931. Retrieved 28 October from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Order-in-Council PC 1967-1616, 1967. Retrieved 28 October from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Your guide to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Retrieved 28 October 2017 from the Government of Canada Human Rights. 

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