East Asians of Canada - History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Chinese and Japanese in Canada is essentially one of racial discrimination from the time of arrival to after the Second World War. Koreans and Filipinos, because they have arrived recently during the period when Canada has embraced an official policy of multiculturalism, have suffered much less from racial discrimination. There has been little organized cooperation among any of the four East Asian groups, either in the past or today.

Chinese. Chinese first immigrated to Canada in the 1850s to participate in the Fraser River gold rush. When the mines gave out, some moved on to California and others returned to China, but the majority stayed on in British Columbia where they worked in low-level service jobs. In the 1880s a second wave of Chinese men arrived in Canada. In all, about seventeen thousand came, with most recruited to work on the Extension of the Canadian Pacific Railroad through British Columbia. Whites in British Columbia expected that once the railroad was completed, the laborers would return to China. But many could not afford the trip back and instead settled in British Columbia where they worked as wage laborers in coal mining, fish canning, and agriculture. Always viewed as less than equal by Whites in British Columbia, their willingness to work hard for low wages and thus take jobs many thought belonged to Whites led to further resentment, harassment, and the formation of anti-Chinese organizations such as the Workingman's Protective Association and the Knights of Labour.

White resentment also led the British Columbia government to seek changes in national immigration laws that would effectively end Chinese immigration to Canada. In 1885 a head tax of fifty dollars was placed on immigrating Chinese; in 1901 it was raised to one hundred dollars and in 1905 to five hundred dollars. Because the tax failed to prevent immigration, the Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act was amended in 1923 and immigration ceased until the act was repealed in 1947. Between 1923 and 1947 only forty-four Chinese had immigrated to Canada. The repeal of the act and subsequent measures over the next twenty years gave Chinese the opportunity for full participation in Canadian society, including the right to vote which had previously been denied them. It also opened up immigration, with many of those arriving since 1947 coming as families from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere, such as Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and South America.

Japanese. The first Japanese in Canada was Manzo Nagano, a sailor, who arrived in 1877 and after sojourns back to Japan and to the United States eventually settled in Victoria in 1892. The early period of emigration from Japan (1877—1907) was one in which conflict resulting from racial and cultural differences culminated in the race riots of 1907 in Vancouver. During this period there was considerable hostility toward both the Chinese and Japanese in British Columbia. As noted above, various measures were enacted by the British Columbia government to restrict Chinese immigration and participation in Canadian society. Although aimed at the Chinese, these restrictions applied to the Japanese as well and led to disfranchisement and efforts to restrict naturalization. These various attempts to enact discriminatory and racist legislation were not occurring in a vacuum. Public agitation in the province had been increasing gradually.

The perception of Whites in British Columbia that the Japanese were an economic threat rested on several basic cultural differences. The Japanese emphasis on frugality and hard work was reflected in their day-to-day activities and in their customs and habits all of which were based on the traditional Japanese value system. Japanese social organization centered on shared needs as well as on a sense of group consciousness. Group solidarity within the Japanese community was further strengthened by its physical and social segregation from White society. Within this bounded territorial space, it was not difficult to retain the highly systematic and interdependent social relations that were based on the principle of social and moral obligation and traditional Japanese practices of mutual assistance such as oyabun-kobun (parent-child) and sempa-kohai (senior-junior) relationships. Another aspect of traditional Japanese social relations that characterized both the oyabun-kobun and sempai-kohai systems was the emphasis placed on one's sense of duty, loyalty, and obligations to one's employers. Out of a sense of unquestioning loyalty, the kobun or kohai blindly followed the orders given by the oyabun or sempai. Ironically, these traditional values and customs, which led to the relatively successful adaptation by the Japanese in western Canada, became the main reason that the White community prevented the Japanese from becoming equal members of Canadian society.

Japanese laborers who came to Canada around 1907 were recruited to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Wellington Colliery. The period from 1908 to 1940 was one of controlled immigration, the major feature of which was the "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1908, which restricted immigration to returning immigrants, wives and children, and immigrants specifically hired by Canadians. Because of the Anglo-Japanese alliance and labor shortages, anti-Japanese sentiment decreased before and during World War I. It increased again during the depression after the war and led to restrictions on Japanese involvement and ownership rights in the fishing and other industries, professional employment, and access to higher education. As Adachi has noted, to Japanese-Canadians citizenship was meaningless or, at best, symbolized the "status of second-class citizenship."

From 1941 to 1948 the situation worsened, and Japanese-Canadians were deprived of their civil rights. The threat of war with Japan and then the war itself increased anti-Japanese feelings and led the government beginning in late 1941 to impound the property of Japanese-Canadians, close their language schools, and halt publication of Japanese-language newspapers. In 1942, 20,881 Japanese-Canadians were rounded up and removed to detention camps in interior British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Restrictions were relaxed beginning in 1943, motivated in part by the need for Japanese workers in other parts of Canada. In July 1947 a commission was established to compensate Japanese-Canadians for the property that had been confiscated. It was not until September 1988, however, that all property and civil rights claims were settled, with the final settlement reached by the National Association of Japanese Canadians and the government of Canada. The wartime Experience effectively destroyed the Japanese community in Canada, but revitalization has started through the efforts of those who have arrived in the last few decades.

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