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Charlayne Thornton-Joe and her 90-year-old father Jon Joe chat at his home in Victoria (Arnold Lim for The Globe and Mial/Arnold Lim for The Globe and Mial)
Charlayne Thornton-Joe and her 90-year-old father Jon Joe chat at his home in Victoria (Arnold Lim for The Globe and Mial/Arnold Lim for The Globe and Mial)

Tom Hawthorn

Blocked from polls as 'Oriental,' he now cherishes his vote Add to ...

Jon Joe votes.

He votes for mayor and he votes for councillors and he votes for District 63 school-board trustees. Every few years, he votes to send someone to the provincial legislature, which is not so far from his home in suburban Saanich.

On Monday, he will toddle off to the neighbourhood middle school to vote for a member of Parliament to go to work in far-off Ottawa.

He takes seriously his civic duty.

"I never missed a vote since we got that chance," he said.

Mr. Joe, 89, does not need a vote mob or an advertising campaign to remind him to go to the polls. He does so because the law once said he could not vote.

He could not exercise the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship for a simple reason. He was an "Oriental" and the white men who ran British Columbia did not recognize him as an equal. A military veteran who happened to be a loyal, taxpaying citizen, born in Victoria, was denied rights solely on the basis of his racial ancestry.

You can find the sordid tale on the Elections Canada website.

In those days, the province decided who had the right to vote. In 1920, Solicitor-General Hugh Guthrie told the legislature, "No Oriental, whether he be Hindu, Japanese or Chinese, acquires the right to vote simply by the fact of citizenship."

A later call for the franchise was dismissed as "sob stuff" and "claptrap" by A.W. Neill, a retired merchant who was the long-time independent MP for Comox-Alberni. The Scottish-born parliamentarian declared Canada to be a "white man's country." To the everlasting shame of his district, the supremacist was re-elected in 1940, his sixth consecutive successful campaign.

The national mood changed after the war, in the wake of revelations of Nazi atrocities. Mr. Neill and other racialist members, including Thomas Reid, the Liberal member for New Westminster, had retired. In 1948, racial discrimination against citizens of Asian ancestry was removed as a bar to voting. (Another dozen years passed before the franchise was extended to first nation peoples.) The transcript of the debate on June 15 took up less than a column of type in Hansard. Mr. Joe had the vote. He cast his first federal and provincial ballots the following year. He was 27.

"I figured I was a veteran and we got that right and so I went and voted," he said.

In 1957, Douglas Jung, a lawyer, became the first Canadian of Chinese origin to be elected to the House of Commons. Mr. Joe had gone to school in Victoria with young Douglas, who he remembers as "a good-looking guy. He had lots of girls chasing after him. He was smart, too."

Today, the federal office building at 401 Burrard St. in downtown Vancouver carries the Jung name.

Mr. Jung, who died in 2002, ran as a Progressive Conservative, a party favoured by his generation as it had been the Liberals responsible for the 1923 Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) act. An earlier Conservative government had imposed the hated Head Tax on Chinese immigrants.

Mr. Joe's father, Chow Chon Wing, a merchant, paid that tax.

Jon Joe grew up in a Victoria where a nickel ticket into the movie house came with an order to sit in the balcony. He was barred from enjoying the refreshing waters of Crystal Pool, a pleasure reserved for white children.

In 1945, he became an artillery gunner and had just completed basic training in Manitoba when the war came to an end. He returned to Victoria, where he worked at the family's Chinatown shoe store, the euphonious Toy Sing, on Government Street. For decades, he outfitted mill workers and loggers who worked the woods of Sooke and Metchosin. His brothers ran a grocery called B&E Food Market. Bill and Ed stuck with the alphabetical listing despite the humour of the name.

Mr. Joe married the former Verna Wong, who had been raised on a farm on Cadillac Avenue, near what is now the Town and Country Shopping Centre. Verna worked at the Poodle Dog and the Coffee House, earning a reputation for making the best clubhouse sandwich in the city.

On election day, the couple took their children with them to witness the act of voting.

The lesson paid off. Their daughter, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, is a Victoria city councillor. She is using her Facebook page to urge everyone to vote on Monday.

Ms. Thornton-Joe voted at an advance poll, so she would be available to help her father on voting day. He is still in mourning. Verna died in February, aged 86. This will be the first time in more than a half-century the couple will not be going to the polling place together.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this column and the original newspaper version incorrectly stated the Liberals were responsible for imposing the Head Tax on Chinese immigrants. This online version has been corrected.

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