They were Canada's original temporary foreign workers – Chinese labourers who came to B.C.'s shores to take on the treacherous work of carving out gold mines and laying railway tracks through the Rockies. Like the tens of thousands of workers who come to B.C. each year under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, their labour was needed, but they were not encouraged to stay.
On Thursday, the B.C. legislature will unite to apologize for its actions – more than 160 pieces of legislation and regulation that discriminated against Chinese workers, based on this justification that once formed a part of the statutes of the province: "Chinese are inclined to habits subversive of the comfort and well-being of the community."
(What is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
Premier Christy Clark will read the apology in the House. "The Chinese community has been waiting a hundred years to hear these words in the legislature and it's about time they heard it," she told reporters on Wednesday.
The exact wording of the apology that has been at least two years in the making, and was temporarily derailed by her party's "ethnic outreach" scandal on the eve of the 2013 provincial election. The B.C. Liberals first floated an apology for the Chinese head tax in 2012, but it stalled. A leaked planning document offered the explanation that the Liberals wanted to to wait until closer to election time to score maximum points with Chinese-Canadian voters. When the cynical strategy was revealed, the apology was put on ice.
The wording of this week's apology was drafted by has the support of all sides of the House – a necessity for the Liberals to remove the stain of raw politics. "I have always felt it had to be a bi-partisan apology," Ms. Clark said.
Teresa Wat is the minister responsible for crafting the apology. She arrived in Canada with her family 25 years ago from Hong Kong. "Our family chose Canada because it is well known for its multicultural vision," she said in an interview Tuesday. "I was really shocked when I arrived to learn we have such a shameful history."
She heeded the opposition New Democrats' demands to broaden the scope of the apology for all the racist legislation that was crafted in the provincial legislature over a period of more than 60 years. "I am glad we have come to the stage where all members of the legislature will vote for this formal apology," Ms. Wat said, "to see the closure of this dark chapter of our history."
On Monday, NDP MLAs Jenny Kwan and Adrian Dix toured the site of an old placer gold mine in Lytton, B.C. that was built by Chinese-Canadian and First Nations labourers. Mr. Dix wants the site preserved as a heritage site to teach Canadians about that dark chapter.
"Apologies can lead to reconciliation, but only if we understand what we are apologizing for," he said. "What we had in British Columbia was tens of thousands of people who came to our province to work, but where denied any path to citizenship. And that has echoes in the present."
Those echoes are the immigration policies that have led to a surge in the temporary foreign worker program. Every year since 2008, British Columbia has brought in more temporary foreign workers than permanent residents. In 2012 – the most recent year with published statistics, B.C. accepted 36,000 new permanent residents and almost 50,000 new temporary foreign workers. The province, with 10 per cent of the population, hosts almost quarter of all temporary workers in Canada.
Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the current immigration trend is disturbing. Even without the racist intent that led to the Chinese head tax and other policies, the end result is fewer opportunities for families to come to Canada and build a life here. He said the apology this week is a chance to talk about a better path.
"It is important to say to this group of workers that we were wrong, but like most apologies it doesn't mean anything unless there is some action. If we don't radically change the course of the temporary foreign worker program, it is only a matter of time before we will have to apologize again."
Ms. Wat sidestepped questions about her province's reliance on temporary foreign workers – her government isn't responsible for administering the federal program. However, she said she is guided by the words of the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Justine Hunter reports on the B.C. legislature in Victoria.