What was the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada? 3 things you might not know

By Carolyn Ali

A collage of historical images
Officially called the Chinese Immigration Act, the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act had a devastating impact on a generation of Chinese people in Canada. Photo: Courtesy of Catherine Clement/UBC

When the Chinese head tax wasn’t enough to stop Chinese immigration, the Canadian government banned Chinese people entirely, separating families for a generation

Canada Day is meant to be a day of national pride. But 100 years ago, what was then called Dominion Day become known as “humiliation day” by Chinese Canadians. That’s because on July 1, 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“Most people don’t know that Canada has been built on exclusion,” says Dr. Henry Yu, an Associate Professor with the UBC Department of History and the Co-Lead of the Centre for Asian Canadian Research. “The anti-Chinese racism then was often about a fear of the Chinese doing better than anyone, that they would out-compete you, and there was resentment,” he says. “That was the root of the 1923 Exclusion act.”

It’s important to understand this history, he says, because economic fear and white supremacy still manifests through anti-Asian racism and Chinese scapegoating today. “People like to think that Canadians used to be racist, and then we just stopped one day when we ended those laws and we’re better people now,” he says. “But we still have those same tools of exclusion.”

Below, Dr. Yu, who is also the Principal of UBC’s St. John’s College, highlights three things you might not know about the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada.

1. The 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act built on earlier discriminatory policies like the head tax, with the goal of stopping Chinese immigration to Canada

The official name of the 1923 legislation was the Chinese Immigration Act—a euphemism, Dr. Yu says, because it was designed to prevent immigration. In practice, the Act became known as the Exclusion Act.

Chinese labourers initially came to Canada in the mid-19th century to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Dr. Yu explains that as they settled and became successful in farming, logging, mining and business, resentment built.

Provincial and municipal governments passed laws to make it more difficult for Chinese people to do business, mandating that local companies that wanted to work with governments could not employ Chinese people or contract with Chinese companies. Chinese businesses, such as peddlers who sold produce door to door, were seen as a competitive threat and shut down.

“Chinese immigrants were the first Asian migrants to be targeted for exclusion in Canada, with the head tax in 1885,” he explains. The head tax increased over the following four decades to $500, an amount that was equivalent to the savings from two years of wages. Yet the policy didn’t stop Chinese immigration; between 1885 and 1923, around 97,000 Chinese people paid the tax and immigrated to Canada.

The next step was to ban Chinese immigration entirely.

2. The Chinese Exclusion Act required Chinese people who were already in Canada, including those born in Canada, to carry C.I. certificates

By 1923, there was already a generation of Chinese people born in Canada, some of whom fought for the country in the First World War. In 1921, the Chinese community protested attempts to segregate Chinese students in the school system. “They were asking to be treated equally, but they were treated as second-class citizens,” Dr. Yu says. “That was a signal: ‘We’d better take care of the Chinese. And so let’s exclude them all.’”

It was no coincidence that the Exclusion Act was rolled out on Dominion Day. “It was deliberately cruel, meant to show Chinese people that they don’t belong,” he says. “For those already here, they issued special cards to show they don’t belong.”

All Chinese people living in Canada, even those born in Canada, were required to register with the government and carry certificates with photo identification, or risk fines, detainment or deportation. The Chinese Immigration certificates, or C.I. certificates, made it easier for authorities to monitor, control and further discriminate against Chinese people.

3. The immigration ban lasted for 24 years, until 1947, during which time fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were admitted to Canada

The 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act had a devastating impact for a generation of Chinese people in Canada. Because of the Act, it was impossible for those here to bring over family members from China. Men separated from their wives overseas lost the opportunity to have children and form a family.

Dr. Yu’s family was one of those affected. Because of the Act, his grandfather in Canada only met his daughter (Dr. Yu’s mother) for the first time when she was 28 years old.

Chinese immigration resumed after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947; however discrimination persisted. “It wasn’t until the 1950s that the province of British Columbia and the province of Ontario passed the first legislation that said it was illegal to discriminate in housing and in employment by race,” he says. “That means for the first half of Canada’s history, it wasn’t just perfectly legal to discriminate by race, it was with the full power of government—provincial, civic and federal—to use race to basically empower white supremacy.”

Today, Dr. Yu sees similar fear and economic resentment fuelling the anti-Asian racism that increased during the pandemic. “One of the things that hasn’t changed is the scapegoating of Chinese for things we see as social problems,” he says. “For example, housing unaffordability was not a problem 100 years ago, but guess how we’re using the same tool of blaming Chinese people to deal with a complex problem like housing unaffordability.”

Dr. Yu hopes the 100th anniversary of the Act will prompt a national conversation on anti-Asian racism in Canada. Along with UBC students, he worked with curator Catherine Clement on a new exhibit called The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, which opens at the Vancouver’s Chinese Canadian Museum on July 1. You can also learn more about the backstory to the 1923 Exclusion Act from Dr. Yu and Clement in this YouTube webinar.

Learn more about how to be an active witness to anti-Asian hate

Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on June 21, 2023. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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