Early Chinese and Japanese Immigrants Immigration to Canada from China stretches back as far as 1788, when a group of 50 Chinese artisans accompanied Capt. John Meares to build a trading post on Vancouver Island. However, Chinese immigration truly began in earnest around 1858, when Asian gold prospectors came to British Columbia. The first wave of settlement from Japan to Canada happened between 1877 and 1928, when mostly young, literate men came to work as fishermen or lumbermen along the Pacific coast of British Columbia. They also settled in B.C.'s Fraser Valley and parts ofAlberta.
Chinese Railway Labourers, 1880s
Between 1880 and 1885, about 15,000 Chinese labourers were brought into Canada from China and California to work on the British Columbia section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many of these immigrants were hoping this job would help them escape from crushing levels of poverty in China. Asian Immigration: page 1 of 6 Asian Immigration: page 2 of 6 The Chinese often had the most dangerous jobs on the railway carrying heavy rocks or planting unstable explosives. They were also paid about 30 to 50 per cent less than other workers. They lived in unsafe canvas tents that offered poor protection from the elements, including sudden rockslides in the Rockies. Many of these workers died from diseases like smallpox and cholera, or were killed in work-related accidents.
Did you know ... ? Of the 5,000 or so Chinese workers who came to Canada in 1880, about 3,500 would be killed by the following year during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In 1885, work on the railway was nearing completion. Chinese men generally didn't make enough on the railway to pay for a return fare back, so many wanted to stay in Canada. Trade union workers and some politicians on the west coast wanted to get rid of these Chinese workers, however, since Asians were willing to work hard at any job no matter how low the wages were or how appalling the conditions. Many white people in blue-collar positions feared that the Chinese would take away their means of employment and standard of living. They also believed that Chinese people were:
Less clean and more susceptible to diseases, dishonest and immoral, simply weren't suited to living in the harsh climate of Canada.
In the face of mounting public dissatisfaction, a Royal Commission was held by the federal government in 1885 to look into the effects of Chinese immigration. 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration
The Chinese Immigration Act and Head Tax, 1885
In 1885, the federal government decided to pass the Chinese Immigration Act, which put a special $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in the hopes that this would deter the Chinese from entering Canada. No other ethnic group had to pay this kind of tax at the time. The head tax would increase a number of times in the early 20th century, and would prevent wives and families from joining their husbands or fathers in Canada.
Did You Know ... ? Chinese people were prevented from voting in British Columbia as early as 1875. They gained the right to vote provincially and federally in 1947.
By 1903, the Chinese head tax was increased to $500 per person to eliminate Chinese immigration. This fee was roughly equivalent to two years worth of wages for a Chinese labourer living in Canada at the time. However, some employers like the railways needed cheap labour, and were willing to pay this fee for adult men. That meant that Chinese immigration wasn't eliminated altogether, but that Chinese women and children didn't get the opportunity to join their husbands and fathers. This created a Chinese bachelor society in Canada.
Starting in 1907, Canada entered into an unofficial "gentleman's agreement" with the United States to start limiting the number of Japanese people emigrating from America to Canada. A similar agreement was also struck with Japan around the same time, as Japan was interested in controlling its emigration levels. A quota was placed on the immigration of the Japanese, and no more than 450 people of Japanese origin could enter Canada each year. In practice, however, the number of Japanese immigrants allowed into Canada would be much less than this agreed-to quota number.
Anti-Asian Vancouver Riot, 1907
In September 1907, there was a serious riot against Asian businesses in downtown Vancouver that was started by members of the racist Asiastic Exclusion League. Because Canada was in a slight recession that year and a fair amount of white people were out of work on the west coast, there was a great deal anger and hostility directed towards Oriental people. Generally, unemployed Whites in blue-collar labour jobs felt that Asians were taking job opportunities away from them. A mob of about 9,000 white people riled up by the Asiastic Exclusion League descended upon Oriental businesses in downtown Vancouver, smashing windows and destroying signs.