It continues to be shocking that, as recently as 1947, there was explicit institutional racism against Chinese immigrants to Canada.
Last Thursday, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia finally passed a motion to apologize to Chinese Canadians.
Canada as a whole was deeply implicated. Though B.C. was the province chiefly concerned, the two most important laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants were passed by the Parliament of Canada.
Eight years ago, after he became prime minister, Stephen Harper moved promptly to offer an apology.
According to the B.C. apology – a bipartisan motion presented by Premier Christy Clark – past B.C. governments enacted more than 100 laws, regulations and policies directed against the Chinese from 1871 to 1947. Jenny Kwan, an NDP MLA, gave the most substantial historical speech, pointing to 89 bills and 49 resolutions actually passed and seven reports delivered against Chinese Canadians and other non-whites. Almost every session of the House between 1872 and 1928 took such measures, and there were many other such motions, proposals and MLAs’ questions.
Early on, the fear of wage levels being undercut by immigrants was at least briefly set aside at the urging of Sir John A. Macdonald, who argued that the CPR would never get built without the labour of Chinese railroad workers.
The head tax – an oppressive economic disincentive to Chinese immigration enacted in 1885 – was not in the end effective. But anti-Chinese xenophobia seems only to have begun to wane when the Canadian government started to conscript Chinese Canadians in the Second World War. The very restrictive and discriminatory Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed in 1947, in the same year that Canada passed its first Citizenship Act, and in the period in which the Atlantic Charter, the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all emphasized our universal humanity.
Thus, war and peace both worked against institutional racism.
Of course, racism itself and some of its legacies are not dead. But progress, after all, is possible. And progress there has been.