We Thought We Knew Better

The bronze plaque tells a simple story: 50 Dallas Road, Historic Site of Victoria Immigration Building:

“Known simply as ‘The Immigration Building,’ the imposing red-brick building that once stood at this site was a symbol of hope, often a difficult hope, that new life in a new land would be better than in the old.

“The Immigration Building was opened in 1907, and until the late 1950s, any immigrant landing in Victoria had to pass through its doors. Depending on their country of origin, some immigrants were detained for a very long period of time, and many were forced to pay an entry tax. This monument acts as a reminder of the enormous courage it took to set off on a journey to an unfamiliar land. Although often entered with trepidation, The Immigration Building offered promise new; a chance to become a part of the vast mosaic called Canada.”

The plaque does indeed mark a spot on Dallas Road where hope may once have sprung eternal but quickly died in a new nation consumed with the evil belief of white supremacy.

Called “the new Immigration Hospital” when it replaced the old centre, it was a two-storey structure with racially segregated wards, medical inspection areas and administrative offices. It was designed to accommodate 96 Hindus, 36 women, 24 Chinese, 48 Japanese, “and 16 others.” Care had gone into the “facilities,” with one administrator explaining the difficulty of “providing plumbing suitable for immigrants accustomed to washing themselves with water rather than using toilet paper.” At the same time, he said he could “assure white people that care is taken that they shall not commingle with Orientals at any stage of their stay.”

While the bulk of inhabitants at 50 Dallas Road would be Chinese or Hindus, it was clear from the outset that any white immigrants confined for whatever reasons would have “privileges.”

In July 1908, more than 30,000 passengers from foreign ports were processed in Victoria by immigration officials and doctors. And that was at a time when massed arrivals of gold seekers and labourers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway were on the wane, and Victoria was no longer Canada’s chief port of entry for immigrants or “travellers.”

It had been the busiest immigration port in the early 1880s, first with the gold rush. That was followed by CPR hiring 17,000 Chinese labourers to blast and tunnel a railway track through the great mountain ranges blocking land routes from what was rapidly developing as a new country to be called Canada and the Pacific coast.

The railway workers were not the first Chinese imports. That distinction goes to a few brought out earlier to work in newly discovered coal fields. They had impressed mine owners with their skills, work ethic, the fact that they could be cheaply fed on a diet of fish and rice, and that they were happy to work for low wages. At least their employers were happy. It is doubtful if a Chinese worker immigrant was ever asked if he was happy with his dollar a day pay.

The cheap labour made Chinese workers welcome and desirable until November 7, 1885, when “the last spike” was driven at Craigellachie at 8:30 in the morning, and the vast number of Chinese labourers became redundant and far from welcome in the province where they had helped build a vital rail link. In BC, the disenchantment had been growing for a couple of years; mutterings about the “yellow peril” were rife.

In 1884, a Royal Commission was established “to make inquiry into and concerning all the facts and matters connected with the whole subject of Chinese immigration, its trade relations as well as the social and moral objections concerning to the influx of Chinese people into Canada.”

On August 9, 1894, the Commission met in Victoria with the recording secretary reading a terse but clear history as to how the Commission came to be: “British Columbia has repeatedly by her Legislature as well as by her representatives in Parliament solicited the Executive and Parliament of Canada to enact a law prohibiting the incoming of Chinese to British Columbia.”

BC was not the only province expressing fears about the growth of the Chinese immigrant community, but it was possibly most aware that immigration laws in the province were not well written. During the gold rush and the railway building years, it hadn’t been too careful in framing sound legislation to welcome workers from other countries. It was estimated that Chinese workers with their low wages – roughly half a white man’s pay – and the fact that Chinese workers had to provide their own food while the white crews were provided meals had reduced railway building costs between $3 million and $5 million.

The fact that an estimated 600 to 2,200 Chinese lost their lives didn’t seem to enter the debate – possibly because no one has ever been able to come up with definitive records. It is a sad fact that Canadian attitudes at the time did not rate Chinese deaths as important as a white man’s. Coal mining disasters were commonplace a hundred years ago. On Vancouver Island coal mine casualty lists, white men are often named with their birthplace noted. Chinese workers are just noted by a number. No names, no place of birth. Just a number.

So, in the year the last spike was driven, The Chinese Immigration Act explicitly designed to address the “Chinese problem” became law. The Royal Commission had recommended the imposition of a $10 head tax on Chinese immigrants. In its wisdom, and probably encouraged by BC, the federal government upped the head tax to $50 – a massive amount of money for a labourer to raise. The new law quickly became nicknamed the Chinese Exclusion Act because, although not as openly hostile as the USA “Exclusion Act” of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration entirely, the new Canadian law effectively excluded a class of immigrants for ethnic reasons. Their place of birth rather than their health or character decided their fate.

To make sure would-be Chinese immigrants understood, successive governments boosted the head tax from $50 to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 in 1903.

And then, to make sure everyone understood which way Canada was leaning, in 1923 – the year I was born, so not yet a lifetime away – Ottawa passed a new Chinese Immigration Act. It was appropriately tagged the Chinese Exclusion Act because that is precisely what it did – ban for the next 24-years the entry to Canada of anyone born in China. There were four exclusions: Diplomats, students, merchants, and Canadian born Chinese returning from education in China.

A Canadian born Chinese was allowed two years for an educational stay in China. Failure to return to Canada on time would result in barred re-entry. There was one other penalty for every person of Chinese descent. On passage of the Act, whether a citizen of Chinese descent was born in Canada or was a legal immigrant accepted as a citizen years earlier, they would be required to register within 12 months for a photo identity card. Failure to register so would result in imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. The Act was repealed in 1947 after the world saw the ultimate results of racism and genocide in the Second World War.

In the 1950s, Victoria’s Immigration Centre became the target of many complaints about inmates’ care. The building, too, was suffering from neglect. It was finally left empty and stood that way for 20 years, a haunted house, gaunt and falling apart until in 1978 the wreckers’ ball finally ended its life.

All that’s left is a plaque and, since the 1970s, the dedication of February each year as the month to honour black immigrants fleeing rampant racism in the USA following the civil war that promised to end slavery and racism. A worthy honour for black immigrants who brought with them many talents to help build Canada.

But let it also remind us of what we Canadians once were when racism was acceptable, bigotry encouraged and at times protected as a “right” by new laws. We should have known better.


  1. A sad chapter in our history! And a backdrop to this was the eugenics movement which was particularly strong in B.C. and basically buttressed the concept of white supremacy.

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