1923 Chinese Exclusion Act: 100 Years Later, What You Need to Know!

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“They say, ‘Time can heal wounds,’ but can it truly? Commemorating its 100th anniversary, the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act remains a pivotal milestone in Canada’s history. Officially designated as the Chinese Immigration Act, this legislation left an enduring mark on Chinese immigrants and their descendants.

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, conceived during the tenure of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, emerged as a response to relentless calls for more stringent controls on Chinese immigration. Commonly referred to as the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act,’ it virtually prohibited all Chinese immigration by narrowly specifying the permissible categories for Chinese immigrants.

Reasons for Exclusion:

Prior immigration policies, which imposed a $500 entrance fee on Chinese immigrants, proved insufficient in curtailing their influx. This law faced opposition from segments of the Canadian population, particularly in British Columbia, where the perception was that Chinese immigrants were usurping employment opportunities and harming the economy. The early 20th century economic challenges in Canada led to resentment as some believed that Chinese immigrants were vying for jobs. Furthermore, there was prejudice against Chinese immigrants stemming from differences in language, culture, and customs.

Following World War I, negative sentiments towards Chinese immigrants intensified, with some erroneously attributing economic woes to them. The prevalence of Chinese immigration fraud further fueled anti-Asian sentiment. Exploiting legal loopholes, Chinese laborers would falsely claim to be students or merchants to avoid the entrance fee.

With the implementation of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, all previous laws concerning Chinese immigration, including the entrance fee requirements, were nullified. However, the new regulations only allowed for four categories of Chinese immigrants in Canada: diplomats and government representatives, Canadian-born children leaving for educational purposes, merchants defined by the Minister of Immigration, and university or college students. Vessels transporting Chinese immigrants were limited to one immigrant for every 250 tons of the ship’s total weight. Even Canadian-born and naturalized Chinese were required to register and carry photo identification to demonstrate compliance with the law’s provisions.

This new immigration law took effect on July 1, 1923, coinciding with Dominion Day celebrations, Canada’s Confederation anniversary. The Chinese community referred to this day as ‘Humiliation Day’ and abstained from Dominion Day festivities for years.

This legislation proved highly effective in restricting Chinese immigration. From 1923 to 1946, when the law was eventually repealed, only 15 Chinese immigrants gained entry to Canada. This substantial reduction had a profound impact on the Chinese community. Wives and children of Chinese men already residing in Canada were denied entry, and the absence of Chinese women hampered the community’s natural growth. Many elderly men retired to China, and during the Great Depression, unemployed Chinese were encouraged to return to their homeland. Some foresaw the potential disappearance of Chinese communities in Canada.

The discriminatory policy of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada was finally brought to an end in 1947. Several factors played a part in the eventual repeal of this unjust legislation:

  1. World War II: The outbreak of World War II played a significant role in this change. Many Chinese Canadians sought to contribute to the war effort, but the Canadian government initially prohibited them from doing so, fearing that returning Chinese-Canadian soldiers would demand voting rights. However, the need for soldiers eventually prompted a change in this stance.
  2. Special Forces Training: During World War II, the British government conducted special forces training in South Asia and saw an opportunity in Canada. They believed that Chinese Canadians could be trained to operate behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia, leading the Canadian government to permit Chinese Canadians to join the war effort.
  3. United Nations and UN Charter: The establishment of the United Nations and its Charter, which advocated for equality for all, placed pressure on Canada to repeal discriminatory laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. As a signatory to the UN Charter, Canada faced international expectations to address its discriminatory policies.
  4. Chinese-Canadian Advocacy: Both before and during the war, Chinese Canadians engaged in tireless advocacy efforts to dismantle the discriminatory immigration policy. This collective activism played a pivotal role in pushing for the Act’s repeal.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada, an exhibition titled “The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act” was launched on July 1, 2023. This exhibition is a tribute to the significant historical milestone and features hundreds of identity documents (C.I. certificates) used to track Chinese Canadians during the Chinese Immigration Act. It sheds light on the hardships endured by the Chinese community and is presented in collaboration with the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, involving contributions from diverse families of Chinese descent from across Canada. The exhibition explores the historical significance of paperwork and documentation in this context.

In Windsor, Ontario, a poignant and momentous commemorative event is taking place on October 12, 2023. This event marks the centenary of the Chinese Exclusion Act’s implementation, a policy that had a profound impact on Chinese immigrants and their descendants. To honor this solemn occasion, a commemorative tree and plaque are being dedicated during a ceremony held at Jackson Park, Windsor.

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