Over the next two weeks, the vibrancy of the Chinese community will be on full display across British Columbia.
Sunday marks the start of Chinese New Year, with celebrations springing up from Vancouver to Victoria, from Kelowna to Whistler. The parades and festivals are visual representations of Chinese culture and a reminder of the role of Chinese Canadians in the social fabric of B.C.
But some in the Chinese community are still raising serious questions about how Canadians acknowledge that legacy, and how even today, 150 years after the Chinese first arrived in Canada, a strain of anti-Chinese sentiment remains.
The legacy in B.C. began when 17,000 Chinese men came to the province between 1881 and 1884 to work as labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese-Canadians became business and community leaders, and moved into municipal, provincial and federal politics. In many ways, they were a founding group of the province.
But Bill Chu, the chair of the Canadian Reconciliation Society, who in 2010 led a successful campaign to get the city of New Westminster to apologize for its past racist policies, says there is very little public acknowledgment of the specific racism that existed in B.C., which he says has led to a “dormant anti-Chinese sentiment.”
The history curriculum in British Columbia does draw on some of the darker moments in the government’s relationship with the Chinese-Canadian community: the Chinese head tax, the exclusion act and the horrid conditions labourers faced while working on the railway.
“But the fact is that all those federal policies were because of heavy lobbying from B.C.,” Mr. Chu said. “If you were siting in Ottawa in those days, you weren’t dreaming of ways to exclude the Chinese because there were no Chinese over there. It was B.C. pushing that.”
Mr. Chu says he believes that a lack of acknowledgment – both in the history being taught in schools and in the form of public apologies and discourse – has led to assumptions about and suspicion of the Chinese community being passed on from generation to generation in the non-Chinese community. And he says this happens across the country.
Mr. Chu points to a controversial 2010 article in Maclean’s magazine called “Too Asian” which discussed whether Canadian institutions were being overrun by overachieving Asian students, resulting in other non-Asian students feeling they could no longer compete. Another example, Mr. Chu says, was when in 2012 the Bank of Canada edited out a picture of an Asian woman peering though a microscope on the new $100-bill because focus groups had objected to the scene.
Henry Yu, a University of British Columbia history professor, says anti-Chinese sentiment remains a strong political tool that can be used to blame the Chinese community for larger societal problems.
“Who gets blamed for high real-estate prices in Vancouver? You have this constant idea that it’s the Chinese, Chinese, Chinese,” Prof. Yu said. “I’m not saying that offshore money coming in is not a factor in pricing – but it’s always been.… Housing is not a racialized thing.”
Mr. Yu says that issue is about affordable housing, not the Chinese. In the case of the “Too Asian” article, it was an example of using the Chinese community as a cop-out for issues in accessing education. “There are people young and old who still feel vaguely threatened. Like somehow privileges that seemed natural are threatened or are going to be taken away," he said. “It’s important to understand the history to understand why this has been a powerful political tool for such a long time.”