Canada Country Report 2014

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Discovery Reports

Chinese immigrants have long been a part of nation's history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 10:51am

Although many are familiar with recent migration patterns from the mainland and Hong Kong to Canada, the history of Chinese migration to the country goes back more than 200 years.

The recent cancellation of the Immigrant Investor Programme, which more than 30,000 Hongkongers have used, is raising questions about access to Canada. About 67,000 mainlanders have also entered under the programme, according to reports in the South China Morning Post earlier this month.

A look back at the migration from China to Canada shows that Chinese migrants arrived at about the same time as many of the British settlers and fur traders, according to some Chinese-Canadian historians. Henry Yu, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, says that when Captain John Meares - a fur trader with ties to India, Macau and China - came to North America in 1788, "a significant portion of that shipload of people were Chinese". They were part of the crew, Yu notes, and when the ship landed, the Chinese built forts and grew food.

The period before Canada became a nation was important, Yu says, because the Chinese were more inclined to stay longer than others. "They were more likely to see this as a good opportunity," he explains.

Like the British, most of the Chinese migrants at the time were young men, travelling alone. And when the gold rush came to California, Australia and British Columbia, they were there as well. But Yu cautions against looking at the construction of the railroad from 1881 to 1885 as a major catalyst for the arrival of the Chinese. Many were already in California, he says, before they built the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Laws came in to limit Chinese migration - most notably the head tax, which was passed in 1885. Under the bill, every person of Chinese origin had to pay C$50 on entering the country. In 1900, the head tax was increased to C$100, and in 1903 it went up again to C$500.

Despite the levy, 97,000 Chinese arrived from 1885 to 1923. "They kept people fed, they built infrastructure and they cleared land for development," Yu says of their role during that period.

Chinese living in Canada split up their families, often going back if they made enough money to buy land, then leaving again and sending money home. While many died, Yu says, "enough people made it that there was this 'gold mountain' dreaming".

A spike in Chinese immigration occurred in 1912, Yu notes, when the economy was good and there was a lot of money to be made.

In 1923, the Canadian government passed the Exclusion Act, preventing all but a few Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada. Until then, Yu says, about 100,000 Chinese had entered, and almost all of them came from or through Hong Kong. After the second world war, there was a shift in the federal government policy and, in 1947, the Exclusion Act was repealed and Chinese migrants won the right to vote.

Immigration numbers were very low in the 1940s and 1950s, with some students arriving over the next decade, mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the 1970s, Yu says, Hongkongers came for three reasons: to reunite with family, because "you did something Canada needed, or you were highly educated". They were not necessarily wealthy, he notes.

Another shift happened in the late 1980s and 1990s, Yu says, when "overt policies" were designed to bring in wealthy business immigrants. In 1986, the Immigrant Investor Programme was introduced. The Canadian government knew that wealthy Hong Kong Chinese were getting nervous about the handover and looking for a way out. The government's recruiting efforts kept British Columbia recession-proof in the 1990s. "The Hong Kong handover [had a] huge [impact]," Yu says.

At that time, Yu says, there were relatively few immigrants from the mainland, and those who came were primarily Cantonese-speaking. By 1998, mainlanders were the top source region for immigrants to Canada. From 1996 to 2001, 184,668 immigrants went to Canada from the mainland, compared with 54,609 from Hong Kong. In that same period, 5,082 from Hong Kong migrated to Canada under the investor programme, or about 9 per cent of the total.

After 2000, immigration from Hong Kong dropped off "to almost nothing", Yu says. But the splitting of families continues. It's been going on for two centuries. Whereas immigrants once left their families in China, now two-thirds of men aged 25 to 40 have returned to Hong Kong for greater opportunities while their families stay in Canada.

What's changed in the last 15 years is that people with no ties to overseas communities are coming from every part of China. Educational mobility is one of the major drivers for people from the mainland going to Canada, Yu says.

Canada's immigration minister, Chris Alexander, says despite the cancellation of the Immigrant Investor Programme, wealthy Chinese migrants are still welcome, and new programmes for investors will be introduced later this year.

Yu describes the immigration policy in Canada as one of "preferential migration", where the government has more discretion over who is allowed to enter. He agrees that despite the end of the Immigrant Investor Programme, wealthy immigrants will still be able to enter Canada through other means.