“The people of Canada want to have a white country.”
— Sir Wilfrid Laurier, former prime minister of Canada
“British Columbia shall be a white man’s province.”
— Sir Richard MacBride, former premier of B.C.
A “White Man’s Province” was more than a slogan, a political excess. It was a primary feature of B.C. government policy for seven decades after B.C. joined Canada in 1871, with Chinese Canadians a constant target of hostile action by their provincial government and legislature. British Columbia passed an avalanche of discriminatory legislation in this period—a record not matched in any other Canadian province.
Over a thousand Chinese Canadians brought here as “cheap labour” died in the construction of our national railway. Immigration was almost solely male.
By 1921, 50 years after B.C. joined Confederation, there were 18 Chinese Canadian men for every one Chinese Canadian woman. Racist policies against Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians were a feature of national policy, notably the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, and it was always in British Columbia where official racism was most strongly supported and promoted.
In both Canada and B.C., there were two strands of action in official policy toward Chinese Canadians (and Japanese Canadians and South Asian Canadians) at times in conflict with one another, while both resting on an ideology of white superiority. The first sought benefits in a supply of cheap labor made up of noncitizens with few if any rights. The second feared the consequences of such immigration on wages and opportunities.
In this context, the individual and community contribution of Chinese Canadians throughout B.C.’s history is all the more extraordinary.
This year, there will an opportunity for the B.C. legislature and the province to reconcile itself with these historical wrongs toward Chinese Canadians. The government is proposing that a formal apology be made by the legislature. A consultation about the apology is underway, mostly involving Chinese-Canadian groups.
The government’s idea for an apology had its genesis in the Liberal “quick wins” scandal with the premier’s office suggesting that such apologies would benefit the premier politically and personally. Apologies represent transactional politics for the premier.
However, such cynicism must not sully what could be an important moment for our province. An apology should proceed but it is not sufficient.
What is also required is reconciliation, empathy, and a lasting legacy that will promote understanding for all British Columbians, particularly young people. As part of this effort, I have worked to prepare some material that should be widely circulated in B.C. that details the extent of official and legal discrimination against Chinese Canadians in our province.
After all, to apologize, we all need to understand what we are sorry for and then to reconcile ourselves to that history.