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130 years on, Vancouver apologises for its racist treatment of Chinese citizens

Descendants applaud city council’s effort to make amends for decades of discrimination that extended from housing to medical care

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 3:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 April, 2018, 11:11pm

Descendants of Chinese immigrants to Canada have applauded the Vancouver City Council’s formal apology for a series of racist policies implemented over the last 130 years.

The apology, recognising the city government’s historic discrimination in legislation, regulation and policies against Canadian citizens of Chinese descent, was delivered at the city’s Chinese Cultural Centre on Sunday.

It was translated and read in two dialects from Guangdong province, where most Chinese immigrants came from during the 1880s. 

Addressing a packed hall of about 500 people, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said apologising to a community for past injustices was part of the reconciliation process.

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“This is an important day for the council and all Vancouverites to come together and recognise historical wrongdoings committed against Chinese people and to build a better future together,” Roberts said. 

“Learning from past mistakes is a humble step and reminder of ever-present challenges.”

Thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada during the 1880s to help build the country’s railway from Vancouver to Montreal.

Apart from a steep federal government head tax on each worker, Chinese immigrants confronted discrimination at school, swimming pools, in housing and in medical care. The discrimination continued after death with restrictions at cemeteries forcing relatives to return the bodies of Chinese Canadians to China for burial. 

Until 1952, people of Chinese descent were barred from jobs in the public service and not allowed to vote. 

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Health sciences professor Kelley Lee, who witnessed the mayor’s apology, said her grandfather, Lee Kum Shing, was among those who had to pay a C$500 head tax when he migrated from China to Canada in 1911. At the time, the tax was equivalent to about two years’ salary.

She said his family, including her father, Monty Lee, who was born in Vancouver in 1923, faced a wide range of discriminatory policies that barred them voting, using public spaces such as swimming pools and public transport, and kept them out of professions such as medicine and law. 

Lee said the apology was “meaningful to the generations of early Chinese immigrants who suffered legalised and systemic forms of racism and discrimination”.

“[It] is especially important ... because this is the place where our family faced its struggles to belong. The apology is an acknowledgement that what happened to us was simply wrong,” she said.  

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“What is saddest for me is thinking about what could have been for these earlier generations of Chinese immigrants who were denied the opportunity to reach anywhere near their potential. They were held back by a society that didn’t want them, that did not value them. 

“It is tragic to think about what was lost, as a result of discrimination, not only for people like my father, but for Canada as a country.” 

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Lee said it was important to remember the shameful part of the city’s history because the community continued to grapple with tensions.

“I hope that this apology reaffirms the message that everyone deserves a fair opportunity to reach their potential, and that discrimination, whether embodied in law or practiced by closed minds, hurts us all,” she said. 

For city councillor Raymond Louie, whose ancestors migrated from Zhongshan in Guangdong, the apology was an acknowledgment of the past. 

“It wasn’t so long ago where people pointed fingers and asked – well, no, not asked – they told us to go back ‘where we came from’,” Louie said. “This was a common refrain when I was growing up and so it’s important for us to not go there again.” 

But Vancouver resident Derek Jiang, who moved to Canada two years ago, said he did not care about the apology at all.

“Discrimination is a complex issue, just as the composition of Chinese people here is very complicated,” Jiang said.