Chinese migration to Canada was first recorded in 1788. Around 30 to 40 men were hired as shipwrights to build a European-style vessel in what is now British Columbia.
Larger scale Chinese migrations only began 70 years later; as a result of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. Although the first wave of Chinese migrants came from California, news of the gold rush eventually attracted many from China itself. In the goldfields, Chinese mining techniques turned out to be better in many ways than the conventional means for finding gold, notably hydraulic techniques, the use of “rockers” and the use of blankets as a filter for alluvial sand. The filtrate was then burned, with the gold melting into lumps over fire, ultimately this meant, the gold was extracted faster from the sand and other minerals that surrounded it.
Chinese miners stayed on longer when others had left to other goldfields. Together with farming, Chinese people owned the majority of land in the Fraser and Thompson Canyons by 1858 and for many years afterwards. At Barkerville, over half the town’s population was Chinese while several other towns had significant Chinatowns lasting until the 1930s. There was no shortage of successful Chinese miners.
From the onset of the Gold Rush, the Chinese did not work only in mines and farms. They made up the labor force of two “one-hundred-mile” sections, which were considered the most dangerous parts of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Though BC politicians and their electorate argued for workers from the British Isles, Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald insisted on employing Chinese laborers to build the railway to cut costs. Back then, Chinese were paid $1 per day while others were paid three times this amount.
After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, many Chinese laborers were left with no work and no longer seen as useful to both the CPR and the Canadian government. As with many other groups of immigrants, Chinese Canadians initially found it hard to adjust to life in Canada and to assimilate into it. As a result, they formed ethnic enclaves known as “Chinatowns” where they could live alongside fellow Chinese immigrants. Chinese settlers began moving eastward after the completion of the CPR, but Chinese numbers in BC continued to grow. Gradually, the increased numbers of Chinese living in BC, which grew from a few thousands to tens of thousands, led to the rise of many anti-Chinese sentiments. The government of Canada then passed a series of Chinese Immigration Acts levying a higher and higher “Chinese Head Tax” on any Chinese person coming to Canada. From the completion of the CPR to the end of the Exclusion Era, Chinese in Canada lived mainly in a “bachelor’s society” since most Chinese families could not pay the expensive head tax to send their daughters to Canada.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, diverging opinions arose in the Chinese community on the question of enrolling into the army: some wanted to go on the battlefield to defend their country while many others were strongly opposed because Canada had not granted them the same citizenship rights as they did for migrants from other countries. Eventually in 1944, 500 Chinese Canadians joined the army. After the war ended, Chinese Canadians were given full citizenship rights not only because of their contributions during the war, but also because of the fact that the anti-Chinese legislation violated the newly created UN Charter.
By the 1980s, many Chinese Canadians left their “Chinatown” enclaves to live in the outlying suburbs of major Canadian cities, which lead to a new rise of anti-Chinese sentiments. Right away, many locals considered this movement to be altering of traditional structures in their existing communities, this included; the establishment of new ethnic enclaves, commercial areas, and the use of Chinese language in signs. In addition, many local communities in Toronto and Vancouver blamed Chinese immigrants for the hyper-inflated property prices of that time.
There was an incident involving a W5 report, aired by CTV in September 1979 implying that Chinese foreign students had been stealing white Canadians’ educational opportunities at the university level, this united Chinese communities across Canada to fight the many anti-Chinese sentiments perverting mainstream media at the time. Chinese Canadians protested in large numbers against CTV and ultimately won their cause against the TV network. Afterwards, many of the young protesters met in Toronto and formed the Chinese Canadian National Council to better represent Chinese Canadians on a national level.
From 1984 onwards, the CCNC undertook many initiatives to redress the Chinese Head Tax. By the late 1980s, the CCNC started to negotiate with the Progressive Conservative government for an official apology and compensation to redress Canada’s past discriminatory measures towards Chinese Canadians, but subsequent Liberal governments had refused the idea of negotiating for an official apology or compensation to resolve past discrimination for most of the 1990s. The second break came when Jack Layton, the then leader of the New Democrat Party, pledged for an apology and compensation to redress the Chinese Head Tax while the Liberal government was still sticking to its offer of “No Apology, No compensation”. Within days of the 2005 election, the leader of the Conservative Party joined in the promise to redress the Chinese Head Tax, which eventually led to the national consensus to resolve the issue.
On June 22nd 2006, newly-elected Prime Minister, the Right Honorable Stephen Harper finally offered an official apology in Cantonese and pronounced a symbolic compensation package to the Chinese Canadian community during a Parliamentary session.