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Coffee Chat Series: Canadian voters lists for Asians and other disenfranchised folks

It’s Asian History Month. In this post I’d like to talk about navigating a “common record” set – voters lists – when the population was disenfranchised. There’s an assumption in genealogy of “common records.” Voters Lists fall in this category, along with censuses, vital records, and city directories. Chinese, Japanese, South Asians, and Indigenous were disenfranchised for decades, meaning that entire record sets that would generally be available for others have gaps for these groups. Knowing when this does and does not apply is important work for a genealogist.

Also, Library and Archives Canada will soon be updating (and possibly mothballing) its excellent “Voters Lists, 1935-1988) page. Before it changes, I urge you to get your copy. (Mine is in Evernote!)

Webinar: Canadian Voters Lists for Asians and Other Disenfranchised Folks

This is my coffee chat, “Canadian Voters Lists for Asians and other Disenfranchised Folks.” Click the link to see the video. The transcript is below.

“Canadian voters lists for Asians and other disenfranchised folks,” by Linda Yip, Feb 2023

Transcript: “Canadian Voters Lists for Asians and Other Disenfranchised Folks”

[lightly edited] Hello and welcome to Chinese Genealogy Coffee Chats with me, Linda Yip of Past-Presence. Today I would like to talk about voters lists and how you can navigate them. Now voters lists and voting is a huge topic.

A voters list is a list of people able to vote. I know it should be fairly straightforward but it’s not.

Who was disenfranchised and when?

For a really good explanation of who was able to vote and when, this is the British Columbia election history put together by the BC archives and it has just BC, however, it gives you a great look at who was franchised, who was disenfranchised, when people [were disenfranchised in] 1872.

Let’s go at it in date order. “Chinese Canadians and indigenous were disenfranchised.” Now that doesn’t mean that every Chinese person is therefore not on a voter’s list because Alexander Won Cumyow, for example, fought for the right to vote and was able to vote in a couple of elections before 1901.

Now also interesting in 1876, “men no longer required to own property,” which means before 1876, people had to own property. Then in 1895, we have Japanese Canadians disenfranchised. That’s quite interesting to me, because it’s many years, it’s twenty-four years later than Chinese are disenfranchised. So, we can’t think about disenfranchisement all with one brush. Different groups were treated very differently.

I won’t have time to talk about Indigenous because it’s even more complicated but one more thing I would like to point out: South Asians were disenfranchised in 1907.

When were groups re-enfranchised?

Now skipping forward to when people could come back to vote – Chinese and South Asians were enfranchised in 1947. Indigenous and Japanese people were enfranchised in 1949. Again, these are important dates to know if you’re looking for voters lists and you can’t find them. It may be that your particular person you’re researching wasn’t on the voters list because they were disenfranchised.

Now, that having been said, we are speaking about British Columbia.

When were people disenfranchised at the federal level?

Now to split them out between BC and the feds, I sat down for a month and I looked at the laws for Chinese Canadians. Now, I had initially meant to look at the laws for all Asians, but it got incredibly difficult and complicated. I looked at the exact language and I broke it apart. So, it’s 1872 – BC gets started.

And then 1885. That’s when the feds kick in. And then it kind of weaves back and forth between British Columbia and the feds. I didn’t really want to go through it year by year and change by change but because of the way legislation is written, it often refers back and cross-references to this act and the other act. I wanted a clear set of language to understand. For example, in 1938, the feds specifically say “every person who’s qualified by reasons of race from voting at an election of a member of the Legislative Assembly of the province in which he or she resides and who did not serve in the military, Naval, Air Forces, in the War of 1914 to 18.” So see, that’s a lot of meaning to pack into one paragraph. And then in 1939 BC goes at it further until BC finally returns the vote to Chinese and South Asians, which I just showed you in the finding aid.

But to me voting isn’t voting until everybody has it at both levels of government. And so it was 1948 actually, when the feds finally came to – well – what they said is “paragraphs i, k, and l of subsection two of the said section fourteen are repealed.” Yeah, that’s what it said, that was actually the return of the vote. And so those paragraphs were these, the ones that I actually just read out to you.

The Chinese, therefore, were disenfranchised for a period of seventy-six years, two months, ninety days.

I strongly urge you to get a copy of Library and Archives Canada’s voters list information and finding aid, before they change it to their new “Collection Search.” I’m sure the new “Collection Search” will be great. But I am used to this page. I have a copy of it for my own files and until I have to relearn the new one.

Similarly, here’s the Royal BC Museum finding aid, and my break down of the laws.

Getting back online to voters list.

This is a really great page (while it still exists). And what I’d really like to draw your attention to, is, first of all, how to find a voters list. Fabulous information on finding information including ridings, and how to look each one up. I wish actually that I had paid a lot more attention to that page earlier. But this is what I particularly wanted to show you: the years in which the federal general elections occurred. And the reason why that’s important is because those are the years where you will find voters lists. And a voters list is an excellent proxy for a census. In Canada, the most recent census – or the national for the entire country available – is 1921. The 1931 census, fortunately, is going to be released this year. But after 1931, there is a dearth of information unless you can find them on the voters lists.

I have just said that Chinese and Japanese and Indigenous, South Asians have been disenfranchised, more or less up until 1949. However, that still leaves these voters lists available for you to check. And one of the things about a voters list which we will see is that you get all of the parties in the household who are of voting age, and their occupations and their addresses, which is a fantastic information to have. And very granular because I, for example, am unable to get a marriage between – when is it – it’s 1963 and 1965 – because of the recency and the laws of the province, which prohibit the publication of marriages, however, I am able to know that these people were not living together in [19]63 and were living together in [19]65 and therefore, since they’re listed as the same surname, they definitely got married in that period of time so by extrapolation.

Where to find digitized voters lists

Now, there are no voters lists online for free, unless you go to Ancestry, and you can get Ancestry for free at the library and at FamilySearch centres and at a genealogy society library affiliate. So those are three places where you can see these records for free, and therefore I feel like I should be able to talk about them.

Let’s talk about the Ancestry collection. “Canada voters lists” are in Ancestry here, “1935 to 1980.” Those are the same years that I just mentioned. And to search them, you click right on the voters list.

Navigating Ancestry’s Canadian voters lists collection

Put in as much information as you can. And we will do an example of that. And if they don’t come up, here are all the provinces. I’m going to choose British Columbia. And then I’m going to choose an electoral district. Well, I’ll show you the electoral districts. As you can see, there are a lot. It can quickly get confusing if they don’t search up, come up with a new name search. But let’s start with a family that I just finished with. The Lee family are Chinese. They lived in Kamloops.

Now I’ve already looked at this record. And I know that Charles Lee Jr. of Kamloops and Lillooet is my person. So I’m going to click on this. What comes up first is the index it gives you the source – Library and Archives Canada – see this is where it comes from. It was Ancestry who had the contract to digitize it.

And the detail. Charles Lee Jr, a male 1953 residing in Kamloops and an engineer. And so clicking on the image is where we want to go. We have two Lees: Charles Lee Jr. and Laura Lee. Actually, this is not my person. Now that I look at it, there were two Charles Lee Jrs. in Kamloops. But I’m gonna keep going with this example. They were number 266 and number 267, of Lillooet. But what does that even mean?

The thing is in a rural place such as Lillooet list of ridings represented in the House of Commons and you can start searching for more riding information there. Now, where am I? I’m back to voters lists. This is our Charles Lee. And they were living in Lillooet. That’s the most granular information we have. But remember where our person might be. Charles Lee Jr. Charles, he’s an engineer. Or as we… Charles Iso Jr. Charles Lee, draftsman, partsman… let’s try this: 1972. Now in 1972, Charles and his [mother] Jessie are living at 250 Lansdowne. Charles is a partsman, Jessie is a widow. Norman Lee, a labourer and Mrs. Laura Lee. Now I know… and Axel Karlson, retired. So we have a boarder likely, we have Charles and his [mother]. And I know that Norman and Laura are members of the family.

There are many elections prior to [19]72. Granted, Chinese people couldn’t vote until 1949. But what is that? [19]49, [19]53, [19]57, [19]58, so on and so forth.

Why didn’t it come up in this in the search results? Well, it doesn’t come up because let’s see if I can show you on this particular one. Yup. Because OCR being what it is, notice how oops, when I click on “2 Brown,” unlike Hobday, Hobday highlights, that means Hobday is represented in the search. But when I hover over Deering, nothing comes up, nothing comes up over Brown. That means that they exist on the voters list, but the name search function is not going to find it.

At this point, I have two options, I can go back to the name search function, and just try again and again, but knowing what I know now, what I tend to do, having found one is I go back to what Ancestry has, I know that my person Charles lived in Kamloops or the Kamloops area in 1949. So I’m looking for Kamloops.

What you need is a clue.

Using the urban polling divisions

You need to know the urban polling division. In this case, it’s urban polling division number 184.

I would have a checklist. I would check to see what is the next one: it’s 1968. In 1968 therefore I want to go to Kamloops-Caribou. Is there a 1968 list? It doesn’t. It was redrawn. So I want to go to Kamloops. We’ve got four different districts. I would start with this and go to 19-. No not there. Okay, well, that helps narrow that down. And Kamloops Caribou, nope, not there. I just checked that. Kamloops Shuswap. Nope. And Kamloops Caribou…there you are – Kamloops Caribou 1968. There are 350 pages in this particular riding. What I am going to do then is look for the electoral district, this is polling division number one, go to the same polling division as the previous as the later voters list.

It’s a slightly quicker way than going through all 350 pages at once.

So that’s how you find a total suite of voters lists. And that’s it for me and tips. I’m going to stop recording and you can ask me questions.

About the Coffee Chat Series

Sponsored by the British Columbia Genealogical Society and, the Coffee Chat Series is my ongoing forum to talk about current issues and research works in progress. Membership is open to all members of the BCGS and my Facebook group Genealogy for Asian Canadians. Come join the conversation. You can find the calendar for this and other events at my Media & Events page.

Thank yous

Reflecting on the presence or absence of voters lists gives me such a feeling of gratitude. For the franchise. My right to vote. For the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. My right to be Canadian and all that includes. For the freedom fighters who gave me those rights, among them my grandfather’s half brother K. Dock Yip and his partner, Irving Himel. For The Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, whose membership included Jean Lumb. I’ve spoken at length about Dock and Irving but this time I’d like to recognize Jean Lumb (1919-2002), who devoted her life to advocacy. Thank you, Jean. I could not do what I do today without you.

[photo of Committee to Repeal the Chinese Immigration Act with Prime Minister Diefenbaker], credited to the Jean Lumb Collection, available at the Jean Lumb Foundation.

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