Racial discrimination cut from old laws

A Chinese work crew circa 1909. Chinese workers were frequently discriminated against, with some private statutes expressly forbidding the hiring of Chinese workers or the sale of land and goods to them. - Canadian Museum of Civilization
A Chinese work crew circa 1909. Chinese workers were frequently discriminated against, with some private statutes expressly forbidding the hiring of Chinese workers or the sale of land and goods to them.
— image credit: Canadian Museum of Civilization

In 1895, the B.C. government passed the “Quesnelle [sic] Prospecting Act”, which granted Charles F. Law the exclusive licence to prospect an area of five square miles near the mouth of the Quesnelle River. The act contained a covenant stating that “no Chinese or Japanese person shall be employed by the Company or their agents, or by any contractor for them, or sub-contractor for any such contractor, in or about or on the property demised, or any part thereof, or on the work in connection therewith.”

This is just one example of the discriminatory legislation that was all-too-common in British Columbia starting in 1871, the year the then-colony joined confederation, and in some cases remained on the books for decades. Searching for, then repealing, this legislation was one of the recommendations to the government in the “Chinese Historical Wrongs Final Report” (2014); and on March 7, 2017 the provincial government introduced the Discriminatory Provisions (Historical Wrongs) Act to permanently remove discriminatory provisions in private historical legislation.

The 2014 report was made by the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council (LIAC). One of the council members is Lily Chow, multicultural director of the New Pathways to Gold Society, who was in Victoria to see the new act introduced.

“I feel very happy,” she said. “I obviously think it’s about time these things get repealed and recognized, to show what people suffered.”

Chow, who came to Canada in the 1960s, says she did not feel discriminated against at the time. “In 1967 the federal government put the point system in place, which allowed me to come in as a teacher. I knew the language, but I didn’t know the history.”

Chow, who has since written about the Chinese history and heritage of British Columbia, gradually found out from old-timers she interviewed about the discrimination they faced. “They told me how they suffered, how they were told [by businesses] ‘We can’t employ Chinese.’ It affected job opportunities for Chinese people.”

The year-long government review of nearly 2,000 pieces of legislation uncovered 19 obscure historical private acts, enacted between 1881 and 1930, that were still on the books. Discriminatory public statutes were repealed in 2014.

The 19 statutes specifically state that Chinese workers cannot be hired, or that land and/or goods cannot be sold to Chinese people. An 1886 act regarding a subsidy for a railway from Victoria to North Saanich states that “No Chinese shall be employed in, about, or concerning the construction, maintenance, or operation of the said railway.”

Six of the 19 acts date from 1886, a time when the Canadian Pacific Railway had been completed, freeing up thousands of Chinese workers to search for work.

Introducing the Discriminatory Provisions (Historical Wrongs) Act, Multicultural Minister Teresa Wat said that “Some of the legislation discovered during the legislative review is reflective of a dark time in British Columbia’s history,” adding that the act and subsequent legislation “acknowledges the tremendous contributions Chinese Canadians and other ethnic groups have made to the social and economic development of this province.”

Wat will be in Ashcroft on Friday, March 17 to unveil a legacy project at the Chinese cemetery at 12:15 p.m. This initiative is another project recommended by Chow (who will also be in Ashcroft for the unveiling) and her fellow LIAC members in their 2014 report.

“I’m very glad, and very grateful, that the government carried out their commitment [regarding discriminatory legislation],” Chow says. “They said they would do this, and they did.”


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