May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, an opportunity for all Canadians to celebrate and learn more about Canadians of Asian descent who, throughout history, have done so much to make Canada the prosperous country it is today.

This year’s theme is “Continuing a legacy of greatness,” which serves as an opportunity for all Canadians to learn more about the history of Canadians of Asian heritage and their many achievements and contributions to this country.

In 1788, British fur trader Captain John Meares arrived at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island with 50 Chinese artists who helped build a trading post. A year later, an additional 70 Chinese workers arrived to help build a fort and schooner.

Between 1881 and 1884, more than 17,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada to build, and later maintain, the Canadian Pacific Railway, which physically united the country, played a major role in promoting tourism and immigration, and is considered to be one of Canada’s greatest feats of engineering.

Canadians of Asian heritage have contributed much to Canada since before confederation, however, throughout history and still to this day, they have faced discriminatory challenges and adversities, including the “Chinese Exclusion Act” and Head Tax, denial of the right to vote or run for public office, the exploitation of Chinese railway workers, the Komagata Maru incident and most recently, amplified experiences of racism due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learning about the history and hardships people of Asian descent encountered and how they have shaped Canada is one way to advocate for and support Asian Heritage Month.

The start of legislated anti-Chinese racism began when the government of Canada established the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, which imposed a $50 head tax on every Chinese person seeking entry into the country. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903 as further attempts to make immigration prohibitive for Chinese individuals.

Despite the head tax, Chinese immigrants continued to settle in Canada. On July 1, 1923, Parliament took further measures and passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, commonly referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” The Act largely restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada by narrowly defining the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants and prevented many residents from reuniting with their families.

The Act wasn’t repealed until 1947, and during that time, fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were allowed entry into Canada.

On June 22, 2006, the Government of Canada apologized in the House of Commons to Canadians of Chinese heritage who paid the head tax, their families and Chinese communities across Canada.

Over half a century after the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed, the Komagata Maru ship arrived in Vancouver in 1914 after sailing from Hong Kong through Shanghai and the Japanese ports of Moji and Yokohama. When it arrived, the ship was denied docking by authorities because of Canada’s Immigration Act, which stated that immigrants must “come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship.” Many of its passengers were Sikhs from Punjab, India, and were therefore denied entry.

After two months under strenuous conditions, the ship and most of its passengers were forced to return to India where, in a subsequent clash with British soldiers, 19 had died.

On May 28, 2016, the Government of Canada made a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident in the House of Commons to the victims and their relatives.

Throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, most Canadians of Asian heritage were also denied the right to vote in federal and provincial elections. The Dominion Elections Act enacted in 1920 took federal voting rights away from individuals who were denied provincial voting rights because of their race. As a result, individuals of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian heritage were denied the right to vote in British Columbia.

Over two decades later, this clause in the Dominion Elections Act was finally repealed in 1948. The following year, the Provincial Election Act in BC was amended to allow all racialized groups to vote provincially.

Another milestone for the Asian community was reached in December 2001 when the Canadian Senate adopted a motion proposed by Senator Vivienne Poy to officially designate May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada. In May 2002, the Government of Canada signed an official declaration to announce May as Asian Heritage Month.

This year, as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the official declaration of May as Asian Heritage Month, we encourage our local communities to get involved and educated.

To learn more about Asian Heritage Month and get involved, visit the following BC-based organizations:

Published on May 20, 2022.