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A look into B.C.’s history of racism, and its pursuit of a white man’s province

While British Columbia is often celebrated for its physical beauty and a laid-back, open-minded culture, it is a province rooted in a little-discussed but hard-to-ignore bigoted past. This week we were reminded of just how dark some of that history is.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix drew back the curtains on some of the bleaker moments of those early days, an epoch when it was no time to be Chinese, or Japanese or South Asian for that matter, either. But it was the Chinese and Japanese, in particular, who were considered the paramount threat and treated almost singularly with contempt. Their banishment from the province would become a single-minded obsession of legislators – and the public – for more than 70 years.

"What we uncovered is seven decades of public policy that pursued a white man's province," Mr. Dix told me this week.

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The outgoing NDP Leader had the legislative library do much of the legwork in delving into an aspect of B.C. little known to most.

His hope is it will help provide some context to the B.C. government's planned formal apology to Chinese-Canadians for historic wrongs. That apology, like the one the Liberals delivered to Japanese-Canadians two years ago, is expected to occur this spring.

"When you're apologizing it's important to know what you're apologizing for," Mr. Dix said in an interview.

"In this case, we're talking about 89 separate bills and 49 resolutions of the B.C. legislature and passed from 1872 to 1928, not to mention a raft of other motions and efforts by private members to perpetuate this vision, this notion that B.C. was a 'white man's province,' and if you weren't white you weren't allowed."

While the Chinese head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, both federal measures, have received most of the attention in terms of the formal regrets offered by Canada, the sheer volume of legislative measures authored in B.C. is unprecedented among provinces.

"No other jurisdiction in the country was even close to B.C. in terms of the kinds of things that we were doing to make lives miserable for the Chinese and Japanese and South Asians," the NDP Leader said. "The drive for the federal acts, like the head tax, came from what was happening in B.C. That's where the pressure was coming from.

"Think about this: 24 of the anti-immigration bills put forward by B.C. were disallowed by the federal government using the power of disallowance, which hasn't been used for decades now. But that is amazing. B.C. was passing laws that they knew were going to get quashed by Ottawa, but they passed them anyway. It was sort of like a legislative riot."

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An apt corollary, Mr. Dix observes, to the actual anti-Chinese and Japanese race riots that occurred in B.C. in 1907.

Sometimes we hear echoes from our past. We see them, too.

While B.C. has come a long way from its racist start, it is not perfect. Racism still exists. Minorities are still excluded. And recent controversies over temporary foreign workers – many from China – continue to harken back to another, less flattering time.

"The majority of immigrants to B.C. in the past four years have been temporary foreign workers who come to Canada with no path to citizenship," said Mr. Dix. "In a time of growing inequality, this poses challenges to us. We have to acknowledge that when B.C. has been most successful it's been when we've been open to immigration and investment."

The truth is most British Columbians have little knowledge of the province's prejudiced foundation. There are likely greater numbers who can tell you about racism in the U.S. and the civil rights movement it spawned than the province's own troubled record in this regard. Mr. Dix, rightly, believes this is wrong.

He would like to see a fuller historical account of B.C.'s racist past taught in the province's schools. He believes that at the very least it could help illustrate how far we've come as a province, how much better off things have been since much of that kind of thinking was rendered unacceptable.

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To appreciate our history, we first must understand it. And we also have to be accountable for it to the extent we can. Mr. Dix's racism project is a service to B.C. that shouldn't be wasted.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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