It is a sordid chapter of British Columbia’s history that has yet to be closed: more than 160 pieces of legislation and regulation passed in the provincial legislature more than a century ago designed to discriminate against the province’s Chinese community.
British Columbia’s legislators passed laws to restrict employment and ownership of property, to deny voting rights, to prevent Chinese-Canadians from holding office. There were taxes and fees based on ethnicity and other punitive regulations. Marriage to a white person, at one point in our history, was forbidden.
This spring, B.C.’s legislature is set to apologize for those actions.
But the legacy of the B.C. Liberals’ “quick wins” scandal last year means that the B.C. Liberal government faces a high hurdle to make “sorry” sound sincere.
It also puts the opposition New Democrats, still bitter that they did not exploit the “quick wins” scandal to any advantage in the election, in a powerful position as the government continues a process to consult with B.C.’s Chinese community associations and citizens.
Weeks before the provincial election campaign last spring, the NDP released a draft multicultural outreach plan that showed the Liberals were seeking to use government resources to political advantage. Among other things, the strategy referred to a planned government apology for the Chinese head tax as a “quick win” with ethnic voters.
The apology could not be delivered before the election, tainted as it was by the revelations. However, after the Liberals won re-election, Premier Christy Clark promised that the apology would be forthcoming. This time, she said it will have all-party support.
Jenny Kwan, the NDP critic, hopes to ensure that the apology is not just about the head tax, which aimed to limit immigration by imposing fees on Chinese people entering Canada.
The Chinese community in B.C. traces its roots to the wave of gold prospectors who arrived in great numbers starting in 1858. The U.S. miners would alarm the colony’s leadership at the time, but it was the presence of the Chinese who stayed behind to build a new life that would draw such a diligent campaign of harassment in the decades that followed.
The legislation reveals nothing less than a systemic campaign to drive away a single ethnic group from British Columbia’s borders.
There was the B.C. Qualifications of Voters Act in 1872, which denied the Chinese and aboriginal people the right to vote. A flood of laws would follow. Even as thousands of Chinese-born workers were employed on the treacherous construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through to the West Coast, laws were being drafted to deny the Chinese the right to work on any construction project that was funded by the B.C. government.
But these are, for the most part, long-forgotten acts, erased from the statutes. Ms. Kwan wants British Columbians to become familiar with them.
“I’m not even sure the government knows what it is apologizing for,” Ms. Kwan said in an interview. “We need to engage all our communities around this history and a reconciliation process.”
But she said the current round of public hearings being conducted primarily for the province’s Chinese community doesn’t serve that purpose.
“It feels like another quick-wins strategy. I don’t think they have thought through the process.”
Teresa Wat is the minister responsible for coming up with a formal apology that all parties of the House can support. Next week, she will conduct her third public forum aimed at crafting the wording.
After a meeting in Kamloops in December, Ms. Wat said she is trying to respond to the NDP’s concerns. She has already expanded the number of community forums to seven at Ms. Kwan’s request. “We have to put our political differences aside on this. I’m hopeful Jenny can talk to her caucus and they can all come along.”
What has she learned from her meetings with B.C.’s Chinese community to date? “It doesn’t stop after we deliver the apology motion,” Ms. Wat said. “I heard loud and clear they think the education piece is important.”
The apology, when it comes, will encompass more than the head tax, as the original multicultural outreach plan first proposed. That in itself is progress. But Ms. Kwan can’t say yet whether her party will be able to support the apology, when it comes.
“What we want is the government to do it right. When you recognize historic injustices, you only get to do it once.”