July 1, 2023 marks 100 years since Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, or simply, the “Exclusion Act.” On this day, we remember the long history of Chinese immigration that has brought us here, as well as the long history of anti-Chinese racism and the ways that legislation can be used to entrench discrimination. While many may choose to celebrate so-called Canada Day, we remember this day with another name: “Humiliation Day”.
July 1st also marks a painful date and a time of mourning for many Indigenous Peoples and communities – the colonial history and violence of Canada is ongoing. When commemorating the injustice of exclusion, we must recognize the violence perpetrated by inclusion and participation in the colonial project of Canada.
As we commemorate a century since the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we invite this opportunity to learn of and reckon with the complex and concurrent histories of July 1st.
The History of Exclusion
The Exclusion Act essentially closing Canada’s borders to Chinese immigration, marking the culmination of decades of state-sanctioned racism and anti-Chinese policies. At the time, anti-Chinese sentiments were rampant in BC in particular. The BC legislature disenfranchised Chinese Canadians in 1871, and towns and cities regularly segregated Chinese Canadians both in life and in death through segregated communities and cemeteries. Once the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the government turned against its source of what it saw as cheap, expendable labour. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 (the “1885 Act”) introduced the Head Tax, a per-person fee paid to the government in order to immigrate to Canada. The Head Tax reached its peak in 1903, at $500, the equivalent of over $13,000 today, and remained in place until exclusion. At the time, the Royal Commission looking at Chinese immigration found that the average Chinese labourer was only able to save about $43 per year after living expenses. The 1885 Act was the first Canadian law to exclude immigrants based on their ethnic origin, and included provisions that were effectively used to almost halt the immigration of Chinese womxn. In addition to efforts to curb Chinese immigration specifically, laws like the Continuous Journey Regulation of 1908 made Japanese and Indian immigration nearly impossible (see the Komagata Maru incident of 1914).
But the Head Tax wasn’t enough. The BC government continued to lobby the federal government to end Chinese immigration completely, while making life nearly untenable to Chinese-Canadians. On July 1, 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted immigration almost entirely.
The Effects of Exclusion
Despite encouraging record rates of immigration from Europe to fuel its colonial project, Canada singled out the Chinese community for exclusion. By the time the Act was finally repealed in 1947, only 15 Chinese immigrants were granted entry, and the size of the Chinese-Canadian community had shrunk by almost a quarter. Barring Chinese immigration separated families for decades, with Chinese-Canadians unable to bring their families to Canada. Few had the financial means necessary in order to visit their families in China, and doing so came with the risk of not being let back into Canada.
In addition, the Chinese Exclusion Act imposed a pass identification system on Chinese-Canadians, requiring that they carry Chinese Immigration (CI) documents or risk punishment in the form of fines, detention, or even deportation. Each person would only be issued a single copy, with replacement costs rivalling typical yearly wages. Even Canadian-born Chinese were required to hold CI documents, which carried the stark reminder, “This certificate does not establish legal status in Canada.” As Chris Cheung wrote in the Tyee in 2021, “It was legislation that turned Canadian-borns into perpetual foreigners and second-class residents.” This was the only time that the Canadian Government would impose a race-based pass system on non-Indigenous people at peacetime.
Even after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, race-based restrictions on Chinese immigration continued until 1967, and efforts to erase Chinatowns and the Chinese-Canadian community have continued, through the freeway fight of the 1960s, the battles over barbecued meats in the 1970s, to the gentrification and displacement facing Chinatowns today. This continuing struggle is documented in Karen Cho’s recent film, “Big Fight in Little Chinatown,” and in the local context, is exemplified by the recent struggles against 105 Keefer.
Despite the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory laws and the slow return of other rights, we continue to see anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism in our society. Whether in outward acts of violence, the planned violence of gentrification and displacement, or in the disregard towards the needs of our community in city planning policies, anti-Chinese rhetoric is still a prescient issue.
So today, on the anniversary of the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we remember the ways in which our forebears persevered to establish a thriving Chinese Canadian community, in BC and across the country. But we also recognize that the Act was emblematic of the structural racism and discrimination that still persists to this day against ours and other communities. We recognize the concurrent and often painful histories associated with July 1st, and that beyond the goal of mere inclusion or representation, we must fight to build a better society for our fellow marginalized communities and for generations to come.
The Chinese Canadian Museum, at 51 East Pender, opened its doors today, and houses “The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act” as its feature exhibit.
Christopher Cheung’s 2021 Article in the Tyee