Remembering an apology

When Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson and the city council headed off to Chinatown on April 22, 2018 to deliver a formal apology to the Chinese Canadian community for Vancouver’s history of exclusionary laws and legalized racism, it left a legacy. The apology itself was symbolic as Vancouver’s leaders left their seat of power at city hall in order to make this important gesture in Chinatown.

University of British Columbia (UBC) professor of history and principal of St. John’s College Henry Yu explains that apology is not only significant in the present but will also be significant in the future as Canadians must never forget the country’s racist past.

Vegetable peddler in Victoria, 1920. | Photo courtesy of chinesepeddlers.weebly

His talk on the subject, A Seat at the Table: History as a Forward-Looking Process, is scheduled for April 23, at the Vancouver Historical Society (VHS), although it is subject to cancellation. He delves into Canada’s history of legalized racism and the importance of such formal apologies as the one issued by the City of Vancouver.

Yu was born in Vancouver just two years after his parents emigrated from Hong Kong. But his history extends further back as his great grandfather arrived here in the 1880s. Growing up in British Columbia, Yu earned a bachelor’s degree in History at UBC and a PhD at Princeton University. He has since returned to UBC to build a program examining history and contemporary changes in Asian-Canadian communities.

A brief history of Chinese Canadians

The arrival of Chinese people in Canada coincided with the arrival of non-Indigenous settlers in British Columbia. Aboard the ships of British explorers in the late 1780s were Chinese carpenters from Hong Kong. In the nineteenth century Chinese workers came across the Pacific to work, and made immense contributions in building Canada’s infrastructure, particularly the transcontinental railroad in the 1880s.

Chinese workers also made contact with British Columbia’s Indigenous peoples. However, the Chinese workers differed from European settlers in that they originally had no intentions of colonizing the land, only seeking to work with the intention of eventually returning home. Chinese-Canadians quickly became ‘unwelcome others’ in the eyes of white settlers, who saw them as competition. It was during this time that “a white man’s province” became a political campaign slogan in BC. That meant Indigenous peoples would be cleared off the land and Chinese Canadians would be excluded except for their labour.

Head tax and legalized racism

Yu explains that legalized racism is the process of building laws around racism. When BC first joined the Dominion of Canada in 1871, the first action of provincial politicians was to disenfranchise non-whites, allowing policymakers to craft discriminatory laws without any recourse. Another very real example of legalized racism could be seen in Vancouver, where vegetable peddlers would deliver fresh vegetables to people’s doors. These peddlers eventually came to be targeted by vegetable distribution companies who got the city to pass bylaws requiring that such peddlers obtain licenses. Of course, who received a license was based on race. Yu explains that while there were explicitly discriminatory laws, there were also laws with no mention of the word ‘Chinese,’ but nonetheless still targeted Chinese Canadians.

The head tax was another example of legalized racism at the federal level. The tax which was first levied on Chinese workers entering Canada in 1885 and set at $50, then doubled and finally raised to $500 in 1903, persisted until 1923. An estimated 82,000 people paid a total of $23 million (the equivalent of roughly $350 million today) over these 38 years . It acknowledged that Chinese labour was needed, but simultaneously made it difficult for Chinese immigrants to bring their wives and children. In 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act replaced the head tax and banned all Chinese immigrants except for a few merchants, diplomats and students. The legacy of the head tax and the Exclusion Act is countless split families that we can still observe today. Yu himself is a part of a long history of split families still experiencing the effects of Canada’s exclusionary laws.

“When we think of racism, we tie it to the victim, we say racism against the Chinese, as if it adheres to the victim,” Yu explains. “It’s saying there’s something wrong with you.”

The legacy of Mayor Robertson’s apology

“We need to recognize and acknowledge racist history and take responsibility for that history if we want to move forward together and continue in the process of building a more just society,” says Yu.

An apology has to be substantive or else it’s an empty apology. But what is substance? To Yu, substance is something that’s meaningful for everyone going forward.

“You’re playing in your neighbour’s house, and in a fit, you break their toy. You go and say sorry, but they just lost their favourite toy,” he says. “The toy may not be fixable, but what can be done moving forward to repair your relationship?”

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