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British Columbia Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson apologizes to Chinese community for historic discrimination

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson delivers an apology on behalf of the city for past discrimination against residents of Chinese descent.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson officially apologized on Sunday for historical discrimination against the city’s Chinese residents.

Mr. Robertson delivered a formal apology for past legislation, regulations and policies of previous Vancouver City Councils that discriminated against residents of Chinese descent, hoping to raise awareness of Vancouver’s wrongdoings toward early Chinese immigrants and their families.

“On this day on behalf of city council and city of Vancouver, I sincerely apologize for these past injustices and their cruel effects on individuals and their families and commit to ensuring that similar unjust practices are never again allowed to fall on any group or community,” Mr. Robertson said in a speech at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Chinatown.

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Vancouver City Council disqualified Chinese-Canadians from voting between 1886 and 1948. The city advocated for federal discriminatory immigration policies, including the Head Tax and Chinese Immigration Act, which was also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese-Canadian citizens and immigrants were barred from civic employment from 1890 until 1952, and some city policies and practices attempted to segregate them in schools, swimming pools and other public areas, including residential housing areas, hospitals and even cemeteries.

“We think it’s a good step in the right direction,” said Vancouver resident Tim Lam, 24, who went to Chinatown to witness the apology with his family. “We hope part of this apology also means that we can also keep the rich culture of Chinatown alive and hopefully, that’s reflecting in our government policy as well.”

Former Liberal MLA Richard Lee’s grandfather was one of those early Chinese immigrants who suffered through the decades of dark history.

His grandfather, who was from Guangdong, China, moved to Canada in 1913. He borrowed $500 from relatives and friends to pay the head tax for entering the country.

Mr. Lee said his grandfather later worked as a farmer on the Musqueam First Nation reserve and it cost his grandfather two years to pay back the money.

Mr. Lee’s grandfather returned to China to marry, but experienced great difficulty to get his wife and children to Canada because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“[My] whole family couldn’t unite because of the discrimination at that time,” Mr. Lee said in an interview on Sunday.

Guo Ding, a columnist in Vancouver’s Chinese-language media, said the apology from city council is “too late.”

“Vancouver is the place the discrimination happened, but is the last one to [apologize],” he said. “The justice is still being done, but we don’t need to regard this as great victory for Chinese community.”

The federal government issued an apology for the Chinese Head Tax in 2006, and the B.C. provincial government also delivered a formal apology on past discrimination against the Chinese in 2015.

He said the apology shouldn’t be celebrated only in the Chinese community, but should become a “collective memory” for all British Columbians.

“If only Chinese celebrate the apology, I think that’s meaningless. If the apology becomes the collective historical memory of B.C., then we think that’s very important. Then all people can get this lesson from this discrimination thing … and we can prevent this from happening again.”

Mr. Robertson said the city has passed several actions that would move Vancouver toward a future of reconciliation.

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He said besides offering a formal apology, the city will also strive to strengthen relations with Chinese-Canadian communities through various initiatives such as educating Vancouver residents about this period in history and by conserving and enhancing living heritage and cultural assets, especially Chinatown.

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