Important Events in the History of the Chinese in Canada
This timeline was prepared by Dr. Lloyd Sciban, University
of Calgary for the Sien Lok Society of Calgary. From
1. First known presence: In 1788 a British expedition
including fifty Chinese craftsmen attempted to establish a
trading post at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. After the
Spaniards drove the British out, many of the Chinese crew
settled in the area, some marrying native women.
2. Upheaval in China: The pressure of a rapidly growing
population and civil war in southern China during the
nineteenth century drove many Chinese to migrate to places
3. Mines and lumber: The termination of slavery in North
America in 1865 combined with the demands created by a
rapidly industrializing continent led to a search for cheap
labour. Available to meet these demands, Chinese working in
the United States, and later from counties close to Hong
Kong, migrated to British Columbia (B.C.) to work in gold
fields, coal mines, and lumber camps during the 1850s and
60s. The 1874 census counted 3,000 Chinese in Canada.
4. Railway workers: The same need for cheap labour that had
led to earlier migration to Canada created a demand for
Chinese workers to build part of the national railway in
B.C. It is estimated that during the height of construction,
from 1881-1884, more than 17,000 Chinese, 10,000 directly
from China, arrived in Canada. After leaving China, they
faced starvation and sickness on the boat trip, and, in
Canada, winter harshness, dangerous working conditions, and
poor treatment. It is estimated that at least 600 died in
5. Establishment of Chinatowns: Centres of Chinese
habitation and business activity developed to expedite the
movement of Chinese workers and to supply their needs. Of
the 3,500 Chinese in Canada in 1880, 2000 lived in Victoria.
Similar centres were established in New Westminister,
Nanaimo, and Vancouver.
6. Backlash: Chinese labour was very cheap relative to its
Caucasian counterpart. For example, in 1866 Chinese coal
miners earned $1 a day in Nanaimo compared to $2.50 by white
workers. This competition and cultural differences fostered
prejudice against the Chinese. In 1875 they were removed
from the voter’s list of B.C. Discrimination escalated when
completion of the railroad in 1885 created a depression in
B.C. and left Chinese workers searching for other
employment. The intensity of the backlash was manifested
when mobs attacked Chinese communities in Calgary (1892) and
7. Head tax: Continuing discrimination in B.C. led the
federal government to establish the Royal Commission on
Chinese Immigration. The commission’s recommendation that
Chinese immigration be restricted by means of a tax was
adopted in 1885 leading to the first head tax of $50.
Continuing pressure from B.C. led to raising the tax to $100
in 1900 and $500 in 1903.
8. Adaption: Being out of work once the railroad was
finished, Chinese began to move across Canada, some going to
Victoria and Vancouver, others going East. Once settled,
they offered services such as laundries, grocery stores,
restaurants, and vegetable production for the urban centres
they resided within. The also adopted mainstream life
styles; for example, Chinese Canadians started enrolling in
Canadian universities in 1914.
9. World War I: Chinese volunteered for military service
and, despite widespread unemployment, purchased war bonds.
Service in the war led to petitions, eventually
unsuccessful, by B.C. Chinese for the federal franchise.
10. Exclusion: The Chinese were made a scapegoat for postwar
economic dislocation, which led to almost complete banning
of their immigration. On July 1, 1923, the Chinese
Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act,
went into effect, allowing only Chinese merchants to
immigrate. From that point on Chinese in Canada marked
Dominion Day (later known as Canada Day) as "Humiliation
Day," closing their businesses and refusing to participate
in activities each year.
11. Bachelor society: It was almost always Chinese males who
migrated to Canada because they had greater earning power.
Expected to support families in China, many never planned to
remain in Canada. However, once they had established
themselves, they changed their minds and hoped to bring
wives and families from China. The Exclusion Act of 1923
dashed those hopes, prohibiting but a few Chinese entrance
into Canada. As a result, the Chinese Canadian population
decreased from a total of 39,587 in 1921 to 34,627 in 1941.
Of the 1941 figure, 11 percent were female.
12. Depression: The hardship created by economic depression
during the interim war period strengthened Chinese society.
Community, political, and church organizations supported the
unemployed and preserved Chinese culture. Nevertheless, for
the first time, the Chinese turned to white agencies for
support even though it was not always forthcoming and when
it was, it was often at substantially reduced levels to what
13. World War II: Chinese contribution to the Canadian war
effort was exemplary. They bought millions of dollars worth
of government war bonds. More than five hundred were called
into military service, some as officers. They did war work
in shipyards and factories, exerted themselves to produce
more food on their farms for Canadian troops, and served as
air raid wardens. They also donated millions of dollars to
the Chinese resistance against Japan.
14. Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act: Since its inception
in 1923, the Chinese had fought to have this act repealed.
Finally, in May 1947 they were successful. Their efforts had
been effective because of their support of the Canadian war
effort, the fact that China had been Canada’s ally in the
war, the Americans’ repeal of their Chinese Exclusion Act in
1944, and the recognition that the act contravened some
parts of the United Nations Charter on human rights. Repeal
of the act was followed by granting franchise to Chinese
Canadian citizens in all parts of Canada and a gradual
opening to Chinese immigration.
15. End of overt discrimination: Changes to immigration
regulations in 1967 removed discriminatory criteria and
allowed Chinese to come to Canada as independent immigrants.
As a result, not only did the numbers of immigrants from
China increase dramatically, their qualifications were also
much higher. Many were highly educated, spoke English, and
could easily adapt in Canada’s large urban centres.
16. Multiculturalism: The policy of multiculturalism adopted
in 1971 encouraged ethnic groups in Canada to preserve and
develop their ethnic cultures. Chinese Canadians already had
a basis in their concentrated residential patterns,
sophisticated community organizations, and widely used
language schools to take advantage of this policy. They have
proceeded to build cultural centres, ethnic care centres for
the elderly, and memorial parks, and to promote
Chinese-Canadian cultural exchanges.
17. Immigrants from Hong Kong: Direct migration from China
ceased between 1949, the year the Chinese Communist Party
took power there, and 1974. During this time the main source
of Chinese immigrants was Hong Kong. This flow intensified
as 1997, the date of the turnover of Hong Kong’s governance
to China, approached. Many of them were business immigrants
who constituted approximately one third of the total number
of business immigrants landing in Canada between 1986-2000.
18. Economic influence: As evidenced in their high
proportion of business immigrants, immigrants from Hong Kong
often invested large sums of money in Canada. This combined
with a Chinese propensity to work hard and save produced an
economic boom in Canada. Real estate prices in Vancouver and
Toronto rose quickly as Chinese purchased more expensive
homes, built Chinese shopping malls (Aberdeen Centre,
Richmond, B.C.), established national media networks
(Fairchild), purchased large oil companies (Husky), and sold
Canadian real estate in Hong Kong (Pacific Place,
19. New immigrants from China: Once the turnover in
governance in Hong Kong occurred, new immigrants came
increasingly from the People’s Republic of China, the
leading country of birth for new immigrants in the 1990's.
These new immigrants speak Mandarin more often than
Cantonese, have different political affinities and fewer
economic resources, but are well educated. They also have a
better sense of China’s increasing status in the world.
20. Large population: The 2001 census reported 1,094,700
individuals of Chinese origin out of a total population of
29,639,035, or 3.7 percent of the total. The 2001 census
figure was an increase of 16 percent over the 1996 census
figure, which itself was an increase of about 45 percent
over the 1991 census figure.
21. New Chinatowns: At one point Chinatowns across Canada
had been in danger of disappearing altogether. Usually
located in poorer parts of cities, they were primary targets
for demolition during urban renewal in the 1960s. The Sien
Lok Society of Calgary led a movement to preserve them with
a national conference in 1969. Their efforts combined with
the increasing population led to the rejuvenation of Chinese
business and residential centres thereby adding to the
attractiveness of city centres. Chinatowns have expanded or
taken root in other parts of cities, even evolving into
major shopping malls.
22. Chinese-Canadian Identity: Starting on the West Coast in
the mid-60s, Chinese began to develop an identity more
closely linked to living in Canada. The radio program
"Pender Guy," which ran from 1976 to 1981 in Vancouver,
encouraged its listeners to realize that it was better to
accept the influence of living in Western Canada rather than
nourish an unfamiliar culture from China.
23. Prominent political leaders: Reflecting their increasing
status, Chinese Canadians have also produced prominent
political leaders. Douglas Jung became the first Chinese to
be elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1957, David
See-Chai Lam was Lieutenant-Governor of B.C. from 1988-1995,
Ardrienne Clarkson has been Governor-General of Canada since
1999, and Normie Kwong became Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta
24. Response to racism: In step with the decreasing
acceptance of racism within Canada, Chinese Canadians have
become proactive in uncovering and eradicating racist
attitudes. One landmark in this movement was a national
protest against the television program "Campus Giveaway" in
1979, which depicted Chinese-Canadians as foreign students
taking limited positions in Canada’s medical schools.
Another has been the ongoing effort to have the Canadian
government redress the head tax, repaying all or some of the
$23 million that had been collected in head tax and
registrations to leave. Groups have even successfully
lobbied to have derogatory names for geographic features
25. National organizations: The need to combat racism and to
influence policies related to matters such as immigration
and Chinese medicine has led to the creation of national
organizations. The National Congress of Chinese Canadians is
an umbrella group gathering opinions from and attempting to
represent hundreds of Chinese Canadian organizations. The
Chinese Canadian National Council was formed after the
airing the television program "National Giveaway" and has
worked to promote the rights of Chinese Canadians.
26. Recognition of cultural resources: Chinese culture has
become more significant in Canada because of the higher
profile of Chinese Canadians and the increasing importance
of China in the world. There is broad interest in Chinese
forms of alternative medicine such as acupuncture and herbal
remedies. Mandarin instruction is widely available in
community schools, universities and colleges, and in some
K-12 curricula. The health benefit, along with the
gastronomic attraction, of Chinese food is well known.
Chinese forms of elder care have given mainstream care
providers viable options to explore in order to improve
their own services. The list of resources could be
extensively expanded to include family values, martial arts,
Buddhism, role of etiquette, graphic arts, Chinese cooking,
and so on.
27. Victor Li’s offer to invest in Air Canada: Victor Li,
son of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, offer to become
the main shareholder in Canada’s flagship air carrier was
accepted by airline management in 2003. Although this was
only a single event, and the deal eventually fell through,
it symbolized the economic influence that Chinese Canadians
28. Youth: Chinese Canadian youth are noted for their high
rate of enrollment in post secondary education, especially
in professional schools. Studies have also shown that their
lifestyle choices tend to be more conservative compared with
their peers. These two factors indicate that the influence
of Chinese Canadians will continue into the future.
Chan, Anthony. "Chinese Canada: Reflections on Historical
Eras and Watersheds," in The Chinese in Ontario: Polyphony:
The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of
Ontario,. Vol. 15, 2000: 1-13.
Li, Peter. The Chinese in Canada. 2nd edition. Toronto:
Wickberg, Edgar. From China to Canada: A History of Chinese
Communities in Can