Since the late-1700s, people of Asian origin have made important contributions to Canadian heritage and identity. Each year, as part of its annual Asian Heritage Month campaign, the Government of Canada encourages Canadian to learn about how Canadians of Asian origin have helped to shape Canada as we know it today. These include, amongst others:

Canadians of Chinese origin

In May 1788, the British fur trader Captain John Meares arrived at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island with 50 Chinese artisans who helped build a trading post. The following year, an additional 70 Chinese workers arrived to help build a fort and a schooner. With the discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858, Chinese immigrants from San Francisco began arriving in the Fraser River Valley the following year. Later on, Barkerville, British Columbia was established as the first Chinese community in Canada.

Between 1881 and 1884, over 17,000 Chinese came to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and later to maintain it. Several thousand came from the coastal areas of the United States where they had helped to build the American transcontinental railroad, but the majority arrived directly from southern China. The province of British Columbia already had a sizeable Chinese population and racism towards the Chinese was widespread. Media of the time often portrayed the Chinese cultural practices such as dress, living conditions and even funeral rites in a degrading way.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Canadians of Chinese origin have mainly settled in urban areas and large cities. Chinatowns were developed in the 19th and 20th century, and they served as major hubs for businesses and family life for many Canadians of Chinese origin. Unfortunately, well into the 1930s, restrictive legislation in some cities inhibited Canadians of Chinese origin from investing in properties outside of the Chinatown area.

Legislation targeting Chinese immigrants

Through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, a $50 head tax was imposed on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada, marking a period of legislative anti-Chinese racism. The head tax followed the building and completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1881-85), which brought Chinese workers to Canada. These workers were needed as a labour force but not deemed desirable as citizens because of their origins. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903 in further attempts to make immigration prohibitive for Chinese individuals. Additionally, the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 disenfranchised all immigrants of Chinese origin, making them ineligible to vote in federal elections.

Despite the head tax, Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act on July 1, Dominion Day. The Act is commonly referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” because it virtually restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada by narrowly defining the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants, and prevented many residents from reuniting with their families. Since the Act was passed on Dominion Day, the Chinese Canadian Community called it “Humiliation Day,” as this Act was perceived as the ultimate form of humiliation.

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, was repealed in 1947. During the years the Act was in force, fewer than 50 Chinese were allowed to come to Canada.

Apology in the House of Commons

On June 22, 2006, the Government of Canada apologized in the House of Commons to head-tax payers, their families and the Chinese Canadian community.

Montreal Chinese Hospital

The Montreal Chinese Hospital began in 1918, Mother (Superior) Mary of the Holy Spirit, of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception set up a temporary facility to meet the medical needs of the Chinese community during the influenza epidemic. A year later, the Chinese community, with support from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, acquired a former synagogue and converted it into a hospital which officially opened in 1920. By 1962, the hospital building had become outdated and following a successful fundraising campaign, a new facility was opened in 1965. In 1971, the Montreal Chinese Hospital became public and served as a long-term care hospital with an outpatient clinic offering a variety of medical services. In 1999, the Montreal Chinese Hospital opened its current 128-bed hospital, which offers services that are particularly adapted to people with Chinese or Southeast Asian backgrounds.

Canadians of Filipino origin

People from the Philippines began immigrating to Canada in 1931, however it was not until the 1990s, that immigration increased as more Filipinos came to fill gaps in the Canadian labour market. Over the last few decades, Canadians of Filipino origin have established themselves as integral members of urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton.

Currently, there are a variety of Filipino associations across Canada that foster and participate in community festivals and civic celebrations. Canadians of Filipino origin have also established newspapers, magazines, as well as TV and radio stations.

Canadians of Japanese origin

Manzo Nagano, the first Japanese person to come to Canada, settled in Victoria in 1877. The two main trends of Japanese immigration to Canada occurred between 1877 and 1928, and after 1967. Many Canadians of Japanese origin settled in the Fraser Valley and along the Pacific coastline while others settled in cities in Alberta. By the 1930s, there was approximately 23,000 Canadians of Japanese origin living in Canada.

Japanese internment during the Second World War

Shortly after Japan’s entry into the Second World War on December 7, 1941, Canadians of Japanese origin were forcibly removed from Canada’s West Coast. Although there was very little evidence to show that Canadians of Japanese origin posed any threat to Canada’s security, “military necessity” was used as a justification for their mass removal and incarceration.

The order in 1942, to leave the “restricted area” and move 100 miles (160 km) inland from the West Coast, was made under the authority of the War Measures Act, and it affected more than 21,000 Canadians of Japanese origin. Many were first held in the livestock barns in Hastings Park (Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition grounds) before being moved to hastily-built camps known as “interior housing centres” in British Columbia. At first, many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps in Ontario and on the British Columbia/Alberta border. Small towns in the British Columbia Interior — such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver and Slocan — became internment quarters, mainly for women, children and the aged. To stay together, some families agreed to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba, where there were labour shortages. Those who resisted and challenged the orders from the Government of Canada were arrested by the RCMP and incarcerated in a barbed-wire prisoner-of-war camp in Angler, Ontario.

Despite government promises to the contrary, the “Custodian of Enemy Alien Property” sold the property confiscated from Canadians of Japanese origin, and the proceeds were used to pay auctioneers and realtors, as well as storage and handling fees. The remainder paid for the small allowances given to those in internment camps. Unlike prisoners of war of enemy nations who were protected by the Geneva Convention, Canadians of Japanese origin were forced to pay for their own internment. Their movements were restricted and their mail censored.

As the Second World War drew to a close, Canadians of Japanese origin were strongly encouraged to prove their “loyalty to Canada” by “moving east of the Rockies” immediately, or signing papers agreeing to be “repatriated” to Japan when the war was over. Many moved to the Prairie Provinces, others moved to Ontario and Quebec. About 4,000, half of them Canadian-born, one third of whom were dependent children under 16 years of age, were exiled in 1946 to Japan.

Apology in the House of Commons

In September 1988, the Government of Canada formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered compensation for wrongful incarceration, seizure of property and the disenfranchisement of Canadians of Japanese origin during the Second World War.

Canadians of Korean origin

Although some Koreans had immigrated to Canada starting in the 1890s, through connections with Canadian missionaries working in Korea, it was not until the 1940s that much larger numbers of Koreans started coming to Canada. Over the past few decades, Korean Canadian communities have helped to transform urban centers such as Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. Still other communities are starting to develop in smaller centers across Canada.

Today, daily Korean-language newspapers are published in Canada, and Korean television and radio programs are broadcast across the country. Korean dance, music and visual art, as well as martial arts and Korean cuisine, are also now a thriving part of Canadian heritage and identity.

Canadians of South Asian origin

Canadians of South Asian origin reflect the cultural diversity of Southern Asia. The languages and dialects of the regions, as well as the religious diversity, which includes, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Jainism are all now part of Canadian identity. Immigration from South Asia to Canada began in the late 19th century when a number of Sikhs from the Punjab region came to British Columbia to work in the lumber, mining, and railway industries, and later in agriculture. By the early 1900s, these new and expanding communities drew racial hostility and resentment similar to what was directed towards other minority communities. Government of the day started to take measures that limited the rights and privileges of minorities in Canada.

Continuous journey regulation

In 1908, the Government of Canada’s “continuous journey regulation” was an amendment to the Immigration Act, which prohibited the landing of any immigrant who did not come to Canada by continuous journey from the country of which they were natives or citizens.

This created a significant barrier to immigrants from South Asia as trips from most of the region involved stops. For those who were also British subjects, this regulation made it impossible for them to enter Canada as immigrants.

The Komagata Maru incident eventually challenged this Act.

Komagata Maru

On April 4, 1914, the Komagata Maru sailed from Hong Kong and proceeded via Shanghai and the Japanese ports of Moji and Yokohama, and arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia in May 1914. Its passengers, mostly Sikhs from Punjab, India, and all British subjects, challenged the continuous journey regulation of Canada’s Immigration Act, which had been put in place in part to limit immigration from non-European countries.

The regulation stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship.” Because the majority of the passengers did not meet this criteria, the Komagata Maru was denied docking by the authorities. Only twenty returning residents and the ship’s doctor and his family were eventually granted admission to Canada. After two months under difficult conditions, the ship and most of its passengers were forced to return to India where, in a subsequent clash with British soldiers, 19 passengers died.

Immigration reform

Although the continuous journey regulation remained in effect until 1947, racial and national restrictions were removed from Canadian immigration regulations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the size and diversity of Canada’s South Asian communities expanded as immigrants from India and Pakistan sought opportunities in Canada’s increasingly urban industrial society.

Apology in the House of Commons

On May 28, 2016, the Government of Canada made a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident in the House of Commons to the victims and their relatives.

Canadians of Vietnamese origin

Southeast Asian refugee settlement in Canada

During the late 1970s and the 1980s Canada participated in the resettlement of Southeast Asians from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, unrest in the region led many to emigrate from their countries of origin. By 1975, the people who were fleeing a number of Southeast Asian countries were often being referred to as “boat people” because Vietnamese people were using boats to flee their country. The term “boat people” is inaccurate and insensitive, because those leaving in Cambodia and Laos did so overland.

During this time, the Government of Canada was reforming its policies on immigration and refugees. In 1969, Canada signed the United Nations Convention related to the Status of Refugees which obligated the nation to participate in the international protection of refugees. In addition, the new Immigration Act which came into effect in 1978, made it easier for refugees to immigrate to Canada. Eventually, Canada accepted approximately 200,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotians as refugees – the highest rate per capita in relation to other nations.

The Hai Hong incident

In October 1978, the Hai Hong was sailing from Vietnam with 2,500 refugees when it was blown off course and hit by a typhoon. Because the ship was too damaged to continue sailing and the passengers were quickly running out of food, the Governments of Canada and Quebec were the first to offer refuge to hundreds of the Hai Hong‘s passengers, other countries soon followed.

Journey to freedom

On November 13, 1986, Canada was awarded the Nansen Medal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2015, the Parliament of Canada passed the Journey to Freedom Day Act, which designated April 30th as a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada.

The Canadian Pacific Railway

In 1871, British Columbia became Canada’s sixth province. A key point that persuaded the province to enter Confederation was Canada’s promise to build a railway to connect the Pacific coast to the rest of the country. One of the hardest parts of building the Canadian Pacific Railway was cutting through the Rocky Mountains.

Chinese workers were employed for several reasons. The most important reason was that, before the railroad was built, the easiest way to bring large numbers of labourers to British Columbia was by water across the Pacific or northwards from California. With the increasing demand for labour in British Columbia, Chinese labourers were indispensable. Chinese workers, however, were paid lower wages than white workers, even though they were more efficient.

Among the Chinese crews were experienced workers who had helped to build railways in the United States. They cut out a path for the railway, tearing down trees and clearing undergrowth. They removed rubble from tunnels in the mountains and cut away hills. To build up roadbeds, they dug ditches for drainage on both sides of the path and then built mounds of crushed rock and gravel. The tracks and ties were laid on top of this path.

Railway construction lasted from 1880 to 1885. During this time, about 7,000 Chinese workers arrived in British Columbia, but they did not all stay for the entire job. At any single point of time, about 3,500 Chinese were on hand. They formed three-quarters of the total railway workforce in the province.

Many workers died from dynamite accidents, landslides, rockslides, cave-ins, cases of scurvy because of inadequate food, other maladies, fatigue, drowning and a lack of medical help. The death count of Chinese workers over the entire construction period has been estimated to be from 600 to 2,200 workers.

The right to vote

Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian origin were denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. While the federal Electoral Franchise Act (1885) denied Canadians of Chinese origin the right to vote, new legislation in 1898, did permit other Canadians of Asian origin to vote. In 1920, Dominion Elections Act took away federal voting rights away from individuals who were denied provincial voting rights for reasons of their race. As a result, people of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian origin in British Columbia were denied the right to vote. In Saskatchewan, people of Chinese origin were also disenfranchised.

In 1948, this section of the Dominion Elections Act was repealed. The following year, this change came into effect, and Canadians of Japanese origin also regained the right to live anywhere in Canada. That year too, in British Columbia, the Provincial Election Act was amended, to allow all racial groups, excluding Doukhobors, to vote provincially.

SOURCE: Government of Canada –