Building an Antiracist History of Canada
The Chinese and Canadian Settler Colonialism
Understanding Canada invites prominent scholars from across the country to explore the topics of identity and the Canadian experience. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

Chinese Arch, Victoria BC, September 1906 [Library and Archives Canada ID 3308896]

In this article, Timothy Stanley examines the passing of the Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act at its 100th anniversary, contextualizing the act as emerging legislation which drove the centrality of racism in the making of the Canadian state and society. He further explores how the building of an antiracist history allows researchers to better comprehend the experiences of the excluded, and is needed to account for how racism has shaped the making of Canadian society.

THIS YEAR marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act of 1923. This act not only barred people of Chinese origins from coming to Canada, it required all Chinese in Canada, including the Canadian-born, to register with the government in order to stay in the county, destroyed lives and families, deported thousands of people, and blocked the development of Chinese Canadian communities even after the act’s 1947 repeal. This act was not an aberration but was integral to the creation of Canada as a white supremacist and settler colonial country, in that it created a political system which deliberately gives people racialized as white a monopoly on power. An antiracist history is needed to account for the centrality of racism in making the Canadian state and society.

Antiracist history 1) centres the experiences of the excluded; 2) documents the artificial creation, systemization, and reproduction of racisms in specific times and places; 3) establishes the historically contingent nature of different racisms and their articulations; and 4) advances contemporary fights against racism.

Racisms are not merely individual prejudices or even discriminatory or violent actions; they are systems that organize the exclusion of one or more groups defined through racialization, exclusions that negatively affect the life chances of the excluded. There are multiple racisms, each with their own histories and consequences. For example, antisemitism and anti-Indigenous racisms have different historical origins and effects, but like all racisms involve racializations, exclusions, and negative consequences. Someone can be racist with respect to one racism and antiracist with respect to another.

Just as there are different racisms and effects, so too there are different antiracisms.  Antiracism can variously challenge the either/or binaries of racializations, organize deracialized inclusions, and/or mitigate negative consequences of exclusion; most importantly they seek to end exclusions. However, antiracisms always begin with the resistance of the excluded. Consequently, antiracist history also needs to begin by taking seriously what the members of excluded groups choose to share of their own knowledge and understandings, i.e., by privileging their self-representations. Ideally, this involves direct engagement with members of the excluded group themselves and the historical sources that they control.

For example, hundreds of nineteenth century documents written by non-Chinese authors purport to represent the Chinese in British Columbia. These range from private communications to official reports and include hundreds of publications in the popular press. By contrast, only a few dozen documents written by Chinese people themselves survive. Chinese sources tell a very different story about the Chinese from that of non-Chinese ones. The Chinese were free immigrants; people with families, not bachelors; people no more nor less interested in making their fortunes and returning to the old country than other migrants; and settlers no less and nor more foreign to the Indigenous territories than invaders from Britain and Eastern Canada.

Chinese sources document the historical activity of the Chinese in resisting racist exclusions, circumventing their effects and limiting their consequences. For example, the Vancouver Chinese language newspaper The Chinese Times recorded Chinese efforts to forestall the 1923 Exclusion Act, including how Chinese Canadians lobbied the Senate to remove the requirements that all non-citizens pass a language test to stay in the country. The requirement would have led to the deportation of the majority of the 55,982 people who registered under the act.

The Fong Sisters, all born in Montreal, were among the 55,982 Chinese Canadians who had to register under the Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act of 1923. The eight-year old Annie is the author’s mother. [Author’s photo]

The contrast between Chinese and Anglo-Canadian sources is so sharp that it becomes evident that dominant representations of the Chinese consisted of white people repeating what other white people had said about the Chinese, who were in turn repeating what still other white people had said, without ever engaging with what the Chinese themselves said or thought (e.g., Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, 1885).

Centring the self-representations of the excluded reveals the systemic nature of racisms. The 7,000 residential school survivors who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada showed that the cultural, psychological, and physical abuse that they endured was integral to the government’s deliberate policy of cultural genocide. Similarly, Chinese sources highlight the systemic nature of anti-Chinese racism, first in British Columbia and later in the rest of Canada.  Once the systemic nature of racism is recognized, it then becomes possible to identify the moments when racism became organized into the world. One such moment came in 1885 when John A. Macdonald disenfranchised all persons of “Chinese or Mongolian race” as part of his project of creating a federal polity made up of property owners.  The incredulity of MPs and Senators that greeted Macdonald’s use of biological racism shows that Macdonald was doing something new; it is simply empirically untrue that if he was racist, so was everyone else at the time. By the 1923 debate over the Exclusion Act, no MPs questioned the idea that Canada was a white country from which the Chinese and other Asians needed to be excluded. This leads to the question of how racist exclusions become normalized in the intervening period such as through government-controlled school textbooks and rise of universal public schooling.

The systemic nature of racisms also draws attention to how particular racisms articulate (i.e., voice) and articulate with (i.e., relate to) each other.  In particular times and places, different racisms can come together to consolidate the dominance of a particular racially defined group. Starting in 1872, the minority of white invaders of British Columbia linked settler colonialism and anti-Chinese racism by barring both First Nations people and the Chinese from voting or otherwise participating in the Canadian state system, and from pre-empting land. BC was to be of, for and by white people. In 1885, some of the same MPs who protested against Macdonald’s disenfranchisement of the Chinese rejected giving the vote to First Nations people. Macdonald divided First Nations people into two camps: “civilized” and “uncivilized”, the former of which included some of his own correspondents who were First Nations leaders in Ontario. He was building a political system based on ownership of private property and he had invented the Indian Act’s system of “enfranchisement” through which “civilized” status Indians were given the vote and a piece of private property.

Giving First Nations people who owned private property the vote was therefore not a problem for Macdonald. But his settler colonizer convictions were so certain that he was not able to hear his Indigenous correspondents when they told him that they did not want the vote because they were sovereign people. His whole career was about building the British Empire by taking control of Indigenous people’s territories and converting them to the private property of people from Britain, and those like them, as well as their Canadian-born descendants. Chinese property owners threatened this Imperial project. First Nations property owners did not. Defining the Chinese as aliens allowed white settler colonizers to define themselves as those who naturally and properly belong, a process that continues today in the racist harassment and violence directed at Chinese Canadians.

How does learning something of the histories of racist exclusion that have shaped Canada advance the contemporary fight against racism? This will not suddenly transform racists into antiracists, but it can provide antiracists with a deeper understanding of how the racisms around us work and hence move forward with better strategies for countering them. Antiracist history exposes the artificial nature of racializations, while witnessing historical exclusion can help to identify contemporary ones. Celebrating people’s resistance to racism, showing how taken-for-granted categorizations are anything but natural or intrinsically obvious, working to build inclusions in the face of exclusions, and mitigating consequences by broadening the conversations that can remake this place, all offer the possibilities of antiracist transformation and a better history.

Timothy J. Stanley is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. An award-winning historian of racism and Chinese Canadian experience, his primary interest is antiracism education. His current research focuses on the implications for antiracism education of the racist construction of our surrounding cultural landscapes.