After 150 years of solitude: Revitalizing the stories of Chinese-Canadians and B.C. First Nations

Lily Chow with John Haugen. | Photo by Lily Chow

Lily Chow with John Haugen. | Photo by Lily Chow

Thanks to the work of local historians and writers, the intertwined history of early Chinese migrants and B.C. First Nations is now being preserved and revitalized.

First encounters
Arriving in Canada beginning in the 18th century, Chinese migrants and traders found themselves searching for new opportunities. This led many Chinese to venture into various small cities and towns in B.C, such as Prince Rupert, Hazelton, Lytton, Yale, and Osoyoos to pursue employment. Often single men who had left their wives and children in China, some began to intermarry with the local First Nations women.

Professor Jean Barman of the University of British Columbia, who will be presented with the George Woodcock Award on June 21 in recognition of her outstanding literary career, has documented at least 30 such relationships in her work.

“It’s impossible to write about British Columbia’s history without being aware of the important roles played by Indigenous peoples and by arrivals from China, be it in the gold fields or by Chinese men and Indigenous women having families together,” Barman says.

Lily Chow, an author and leading scholar on Chinese-First Nations history, describes how Aboriginal and Chinese men also formed close working and personal relationships that ranged from working together in gold mines and building railways to gambling and trading lessons on hunting and cooking. The relationship was often frustrated, however, by a colonial government that would frequently grant land and water rights to Chinese individuals to the detriment of First Nations.

Unfortunately, there is still a large gap in our knowledge of both this period and the 100 years that followed.

“The main reason [for the gap] is the lack of documentation in this period [from Chinese and First Nations’ perspectives]. Also, urbanization saw many Chinese immigrants move to big cities and congregate in Chinatowns, for protection and jobs,” explains Chow.

Young historian looking to fill in the gaps
Sarah Ling is a fourth-generation Chinese-Canadian from Prince Rupert who has conducted extensive research into the interactions between the Musqueam Nation and early Chinese migrants who lived and worked as market gardeners on the Musqueam reserve. She also uncovered her own family’s rich history of interaction with First Nation peoples. Ling learned that her great-great uncle, Mah Bon Quen, was the first Chinese merchant in Prince Rupert and made a living trading with local Haida, Tsimshian, and Gitksan people.

For Ling, it is integral to learn from local elders and knowledge keepers. Their stories have revealed that relations between Chinese and First Nations were often respectful and mutually beneficial. In many cases, both peoples supported one another in the face of marginalization, racism, and assimilationist and destructive policies imposed by the Canadian government.

Ling noted that today there is a lack of knowledge of Indigenous topics and issues among all Canadians.

“Many Canadians and recent newcomers to Canada hold misconceptions of First Nations peoples, due to the instances of misrepresentation and appropriation that pervade mainstream media, not only in North America but globally,” says Ling.

Ling points out that the majority of the new wave of Asian migrants to Canada, much like Canadians themselves, know little about Canada’s First Nations peoples before they arrive and often are only exposed to misrepresentations and stereotypes.

Building tomorrow’s Chinese-Canadian/First Nations narrative
Barman, Chow, and Ling all believe that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on teaching the importance of local First Nations communities and on our collective responsibility to learn about our shared histories.

Barman believes that the next step in furthering the relationship is better communication. She recommends that more events take place within both Aboriginal and Chinese-Canadian communities, to share first-hand narratives and histories.

“Conducting workshops, seminars, and conferences for the general Canadian public would be beneficial, particularly for newer immigrants,” says Chow.

Chow points out that progress has been made, but that more work needed to be done by the federal and provincial governments to integrate the history of Chinese and First Nations into the curriculum.

Ling agrees and points to the provincial curriculum as a major source of misconceptions held by Canadians. Ling suggests that recent resources such as the “First Peoples: A Guide for Newcomers” created by the City of Vancouver and the UBC Chinese Canadian Stories project are steps in the right direction.

With increasing foreign investment from China, particularly within the natural resource sector, Ling also believes that the relationship between First Nations and Chinese is entering a new phase.

“Unfortunately, Indigenous communities across Canada often have to rally against the government and large companies in order for proper community consultation to take place. Consultation is critical in order to protect their unique histories, cultures, and unceded lands. Failure to consult compromises Aboriginal title, rights, and treaties,” Ling says.