When “the Quality of Mercy” was Strained in Canada

If you think President Donald Trump a bit of a flake, his bellicose racist fear-mongering disgraceful – so do I. He reminds me of a time, and not so long ago, when Canadian politicians had similar thoughts. Not just one politician with sycophantic followers, but just about all politicians federal, provincial and municipal teaching a mob to bellow in unison that Chinese immigrants did not belong in Canada.

There was never any doubt in their white supremacy. They were open, and frightening: China was a weak nation of backward people who could never learn to live like white Canadians. Those who had been recruited to Canada to build a railroad had “brought with them diseases and other bad habits (such as smoking opium) that threatened Canada’s well being.”

These unprincipled weak and backward people had served a useful purpose as cheap labour while railroads were under construction. Now they not only wanted to stay in Canada – they wanted to bring their families from China to join them. And they actually had the desire to establish themselves in the business world and open laundries, small productive vegetable farms and a few corner stores to raise the money to bring their folks over.

British Columbia led the fight to keep the “dangerous Orientals” in check but was by no means alone. The Library Archives of Canada tell us that in Calgary property owners living near Chinatown made moves to block its ever-expanding growth because they feared their property was being devalued by the Chinese presence.

History also notes that Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario introduced stringent laws prohibiting Chinese laundry owners from hiring white women. It was unacceptable to government that any white person could be answerable to a Chinese boss, and shockingly dangerous that white women should find themselves in a position where their Chinese employer “would take sexual advantage” of them.

Not “could” take advantage but “would” because these Chinese immigrants and refugees were believed to be a bad lot and government at all levels never hesitated to say so. The political ranks were full of replica Donald Trumps and the electorate loved, supported and re-elected them. Newspaper publishers and editors of the day agreed with the politicians, and stoked the rampant racist regulations banning Chinese from public swimming pools and ordering them to sit in special seating areas at the movies.

In 1885, Ottawa introduced the Chinese Immigration Act – the first law to specifically exclude immigrants to Canada on the basis of ethnic origin. The press and the people loved the law and the $50 head tax it placed on every would-be Chinese immigrant. The tax slowed down the flow, but not enough. In 1900 it was increased to $100 and three years later to $500 – more than a year’s pay for labourers.

It would be years before, with awakening conscience, the tax was eliminated and decades before 2006 when Canada, through its then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, apologized “for the racist actions of our past” and offered “symbolic payments” in compensation.

Readers interested in following the evolution of racism in Canada can Google Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation and follow a legacy of growing intolerance from 1869 and the country’s first Immigration Act (which had virtually no restrictions), through the years when race restrictions first surfaced to the 1910 Immigration Act. That was the year the federal government expanded its prohibited immigrants list. Among the new exclusions were immigrants “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” Immigrants sponsored by “charitable institutions” were a surprising exclusion.

One phrase in the 1910 revisions would delight President Trump. It kept decision making power firmly in the hands of the executive branch of Canada’s national government with “courts and judges barred from reviewing, reversing or otherwise interfering in the decisions of the minister responsible….”

As the years rolled by Canadian governments at all levels abandoned old hatreds and beliefs. Maybe the riotous years of the early 1900s – when, in 1907, a mob several thousand strong invaded Vancouver’s prosperous Chinatown to smash store windows and wreck buildings – sparked qualms of conscience. Or maybe it was a quiet reflection on the racist proposal of Victoria’s School Trustees to banish Chinese students from “white only classrooms.”

Perhaps what troubled decent minded people, was the government’s actions during great recession of the 1930s when the BC government provided a Chinese soup kitchen with 16 cents per day per person and white people 25 cents a day; or the rule in Alberta where relief payments were $1.12 a week for Chinese people and double that for needy whites.

It was WW2 that brought about Canada’s final conversion to decency. In the post war years Canada was heavily involved in the birth of the United Nations which declared equal rights for all people in a democracy. After self examination in 1947, Canada removed the prohibition which had denied those of Chinese origin equal rights – and repealed the 1923 immigration law preventing immigration.

We can always hope that President Trump will come to see the error of his racist ways and change his ways quicker than Canada did; hope that he and his supporters will come to understand Shakespeare’s advice that “the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes….”

But it’s not a hope to bet the farm on.


  1. An excellent article Jim, one that western Canadians in particular, should read. I was born 89 yrs ago and grew up in the Ladysmith area, and can clearly remember the racist environment of the time. I do not ever remember the respectful word “chinese” ever being used. There were “chinks” and of course “japs “ . A record of which we should never be proud. “ But we must be on guard that we do not inadvertently slip into a 21st century version of the same kind of thinking. Cheers, and keep firing away. Al Pelter, 515- 2800 Blanshard Street, Victoria, BC. V8T 5B5 250 658 1215.

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