Canadian Genealogy · Chinese Genealogy

Order-in-Council PC 2115: When immigration met the X-ray machine

In this post I look at the follow up to the Chinese Immigration Act and share a startling period in Canadian immigration: the use of X-rays to determine the chronological age of Chinese teenagers and young adults. Put simply, X-rays were used to measure bone formation, called ossification, and by comparing the measurements of bone development against average development in humans, decisions were made as to whether an immigrant was admissible. It was the era of using X-rays as polygraphs. Here’s the story.

Backgrounder: the Chinese Immigration Act

In Canada, the Chinese Immigration Act was in place from 20 Jul 1885 to 14 May 1947. It applied to all Chinese. It should have been called The Chinese Act, because it applied to areas well outside immigration to include even the Chinese born in the country. During those 61 years, 9 months and 24 days:

  • Most immigrant Chinese paid a head tax of $50, $100, or $500 (1885-1923)
  • All Chinese in the country were assigned unique identity documents (head tax certificates)
  • New would be immigrants were banned from immigrating entirely (1923-1947)
  • Chinese in Canada were not permitted to bring aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, married children or older children to join them (1930-?)

The anti-family laws: OIC PC 2115

On 14 May 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed.

Quiet celebrations ensued in the community among the Chinese and their allies, as they looked forward to the borders opening, to reuniting with their families, and to enjoying the same privileges as other immigrants in the country. Sadly, this would not happen for some time. In the interim, there were a succession of laws with the express intent of keeping a tight control on immigration. The Chinese Immigration Act was gone but the previous Order in Council PC 2115 remained.

Great fear and something akin to panic can be inferred from the multiple studies ordered from the Chinese Immigration Branch: How many Chinese do we have? How many have come in? How many have left? Is the trend rising or falling? How many more will be coming? How many are naturalized? Where do they currently reside? In a 1950 report, the Chinese Immigration Controller at Vancouver reported:

  • By province, BC had the majority with 18,619 and the Yukon Territory the least with 3
  • A total of 3045 applications had been received for would be immigrants 1947-1950
  • That 6823 applications for naturalization had been received, but only 2056 granted
  • By 1949, there were a total of 44,426 Chinese in Canada

Today, not many Chinese in Canada know the impact of the Chinese Immigration Act. Even fewer know about PC 2115. It’s hard now to guess at the motivations behind a crudely written law like PC 2115, amended by 6229. The gross intent was to prevent, not facilitate, the reunification of families, and it did long-lasting damage. Before I continue, let me explain that a federal Order-in-Council is a decision by the Governor-General, and that it could include changes to the law as suggested by the members of Cabinet. These decisions are not debated in Parliament, but they are published in the official news: the Canada Gazette. To be clear, this process of updating and rewriting laws is not subject to public debate. Put simply, it’s how a government gets things done.

One other thing to remember is that laws are written like Lego blocks: they’re meant to fit together and after a while it’s hard to pry them apart. Thus OIC PC 2115, dated 16 Sep 1930 (a Chinese man in Canada could apply to bring a wife and his unmarried children under the age of eighteen), was amended by PC 6229 on 28 Dec 1950 (a Chinese man could now bring a wife and unmarried children under the age of twenty-one).

WHEREAS by Order in Council P.C. 2115 of 16th September, 1930, certain regulations were made pursuant to section thirty-eight of the Immigration Act prohibiting the landing in Canada of any immigrant of any Asiatic race, except as therein provided;

The wife, the husband, or the unmarried child under twenty-one years of age, of any Canadian citizen legally admitted to and resident in Canada, who is in a position to care for his dependents.”

Excerpt, SOR/50-583 Immigration Act – amendments, Regulations re landing in Canada of immigrants of any Asiatic race, P.C. 6229

X-rays for Chinese teenagers

Thus began a bizarre period in Canadian immigration. Chinese were subjected to a battery of medical tests both before and after immigrating. Again, these tests were not designed to facilitate but rather to filter. (Anyone who has taken a mandatory math course at university is familiar with the idea of systemic filtering.)

As of 1 Aug 1950, Chinese arriving in Canada who were under the apparent age of twenty-three years were to undergo an X-ray to confirm their age. If they failed the X-ray test, they were deported. Note that this was the last hurdle in a labyrinthine series of hurdles.

The Immigration Branch was looking for sons and daughters who were trying to be with their parents but who were older than the law said they were allowed to be.

Here is a video showing the X-ray process in the 1950s.

1950s Doctor’s Office Examination of Patients ,X-Ray –

These examinations were conducted on the second floor of the Immigration Building in Vancouver, BC. For more on this building, see my post The Chinese Detention Shed.

Foon Sien, President of the Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA), wrote to the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, Walter E. Harris, on 22 Nov 1950. He said that the “… New procedure creates considerable anxiety to relatives and immigrants alike.”

On 15 Dec 1950, the Deputy Minister of the Department of National Health and Welfare wrote to the Deputy Minister of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, assuring him the practise of X-rays was reliable in determining chronological age in children:

…growth changes in the skeleton as shown by X-ray are shown to be the most reliable basis presently available for the estimation of age between 10 and 22 years.

It is generally agreed that these changes do not permit an exact determination, nevertheless they do permit an estimation valuable in establishing identification when such factors as sex and the presence or absence of gross endocrine disturbances are considered.

In taking X-rays to assist in the identification of Chinese, we are using the most valuable and scientific means at our disposal in the light of present knowledge. I have been informed that in most instances the X-ray findings supported the view of our Hong Kong roster doctor and your visa officer, that an applicant was over or under the alleged age.

Letter from GDW Cameron, MD, DPH, Deputy Minister of National Health to Mr. Laval Fortier, Deputy Minister, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, dated 15 Dec 1950.

On 18 Apr 1951, Foon Sien appealed again on behalf of all Chinese to cease the practice of using X-rays to determine age in children. He wrote that “…radiographs taken of joints and bones would not determine age accurately,” and, “… furthermore, this technique of judging age by ex-ray [sic] is a matter discarded by the U.S. Immigration ten years ago,” citing Carmichael, District Director, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, vs. Wong Choon Och, 119 Federal, 2D, page 173.

To support the appeal, the CBA had also gathered medical opinions on the efficacy of X-rays to determine age from fifteen Canadian and American medical experts in the fields of medicine, zoology, physiology, and radiology.

Here are three.

… I can say without fear of contradiction that it would not be possible to judge age accurately in all people by taking radiographs of bone structure.

Diet plays a very important part in bone growth and degree of ossification. Serious malnutrition at any age can induce great decalcification.

Under any circumstances, even with an extensive body of evidence, individual variation is such that it will probably never be possible to use this technique for unequivocal aging to within two or three years.

Professor I. McT. Cowan, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia. 29 Jan 1951.

… I must agree completely with Professor Cowan, that the method, while valuable, is not exact to within perhaps 3 or 4 years either way in any one person… the degree of ossification in a single individual seems to indicate a certain age… does not prove that that person is of that age, but merely that he has the degree of ossification usually found at that age.

John Stanley, Chairman, Department of Zoology, McGill University, 2 Feb 1951.

I quite agree with the opinion of Dr. I. McT. Cowan… It would, I think, be quite hazardous to attempt to determine chronological age (age in years) from the roentgenograms [edit: an X-ray] of the skeleton. Such films can show merely the degree of skeletal development that the individual has attained. It would, I think, be quite illogical to attempt to apply age standards based on the skeletal development of children of one race to children of another race. However, the rate of which skeletal development proceeds can be markedly retarded by illness or severe nutritional inadequacies.

William Walter Groulich, Professor of Anatomy, Stanford University. 2 Mar 1951.

In response, the Immigration Branch argued in favour of keeping the outmoded and discredited X-ray method, suggesting they knew its limitations, always gave the benefit of the doubt, and said it was actually a benefit to the Chinese themselves,

If the X-ray demonstrates that the Chinese is approximately the age he claims to be (and this has been the case in many instances), then the taking of the X-ray is actually of some benefit to the Chinese…

H.D. Reid, MD, Chief, Division of Quarantine, Immigration Medical and Sick Mariners’ Services, 1 Jun 1951.

I don’t know when the process of X-raying incoming Chinese was ended, but my current theory is that it’s linked to the same date Canada dropped the age-based criteria for the children.

When was PC 2115 repealed? [Update 21 Jun 2021: PC 2115 was rescinded in 1957.]

The lingering impacts of PC 2115

In my opinion, the laws preventing a family from reuniting and the phenomenon of paper families are cause and effect. A paper son or paper daughter is a person who has bought identity papers in order to immigrate to Canada. It’s outside the bounds of this post to discuss the morality and legality of paper families, but there are families today who would not be together without taking extraordinary measures.


These past two weeks, I’ve spent my free time poring over ten files and 4199 pages of correspondence from the Chinese Immigration Branch (1895-1952) which have been digitized and are all at Héritage Canadiana. Of course, I didn’t find what I was looking for – head tax ledgers – but I did find X-ray machines and a lot more besides. If you’d like to see what I found, I’ve listed every reference below, with links to the original documents. Note that these images are only partially searchable: to discover their secrets means you must go through it page by page.

I want to know more about the shadowy Chinese Immigration Branch.

I want to know more about General Odlum, who so clearly wrote in 1944 about the intent of these laws:

It appears that the system now in place was designed to discourage, not to facilitate entry – to put obstacles in the way of those who might want to visit Canada. I have listened to many influential Chinese tell stories of the ridiculous (from their point of view) and undignified (from anyone’s point of view) experiences they encounter when merely trying to pay a flying visit to Niagara Falls; and at times I have felt a little ashamed. I realize there was a time when Canadian public sentiment was strongly in favour of maintaining impassable barriers against Orientals; but I imagine this sentiment has changed in the last few years.

Canadian Ambassador General Odlum, Chunking, China. 4 Mar 1944.

I want to get my hands on a head tax registry. Somewhere, there must be lists of head tax certificates: how many were issued, to whom they were issued, and the places where they were sent. Yes, the “General Register of Chinese Immigration” lists a few, but everything about the application of the Chinese Immigration Act in Canada speaks to a massive, multimillion dollar bureaucratic process. I have learned there were Chinese Immigration Branches in at least nine cities. In China, Canada had a large operation in Hong Kong. In Canada, there were offices in Ontario (Ottawa, Toronto, and Cataraqui), Quebec (Montreal and Quebec City), British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria) and New Brunswick (St. John).

Are those X-rays and medical tests also held somewhere in a Chinese Immigration Act Case File? Perhaps they are. I’d like very much to find out.

Thank yous

Thanks this week go to Caitlin Webster, archivist at Library and Archives Canada; to Catherine Clement, curator, The Chinese Exclusion Act Project; and to Carol Lee, for long-running conversations about the many-headed hydra that was the Chinese Immigration Act.


Canada, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Subject, policy and case files in the First Central Registry series of the Immigration Program, 1892-1950, Immigration Program: Headquarters central registry files, Identifiers lac_reel_c4785, 134829, 178731, 134830, RG 76B:

Canada, Privy Council, Canada Gazette 1841-1997, The Canada Gazette Part II: Statutory Orders and Regulations, images 19-20, Series Part II (1947-1997), Vol. 85, No. 1, date 10 Jan 1951, SOR/50-583 P.C. 6229 amending the Immigration Act as of 28 Dec 1950, images online, Library and Archives Canada at

Eugene A. Forsey, “Order-in-Council | The Canadian Encyclopedia,” Encyclopedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 4, 2020,

“Wong Foon Sien,” in Wikipedia, June 10, 2021,

5 thoughts on “Order-in-Council PC 2115: When immigration met the X-ray machine

  1. Very interesting, Linda. When I was a home inspector many years ago, I saw a couple of what I guess were ‘head tax certificates’ in houses in today’s china town. Has anyone tried to reverse-engineer the the head tax file by asking all holders of same to send their info to your? Bill Clayton

    1. Yes! Reverse-engineer is right. There’s a project underway right now. Catherine Clement, curator of the successful Yucho Chow exhibition and book, is heading up a team collecting these certificates, wherever they may be. See I’m helping where I can, and I’m the SK contact for people in the area. Stay tuned for a major media press release this July 1st, to be followed in 2023 with an exhibition. We hope we’ll have enough of a collection for a usable database.

  2. The history of Canada is full of restrictive laws, policies, letters, appeals, etc. – aimed at keeping “Canada” as white as possible; it’s painful to read of such laws/policies in these so-called enlightened days…

    1. Yes, very painful. I used to think we were somehow better in Canada and now I suspect I was simply ill-informed.


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