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Consequences of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Overview of the set

This set of History Docs invites students to identify the consequences of the 1923 Exclusion Act for the Chinese Canadian community after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including government legislation, newspaper articles, interviews, census data, and secondary sources.

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Primary sources

1. The Exclusion Act |

2. Chinese-Canadians observe “Humiliation Day” |


3. Opposition to the 1923 Exclusion Act |

4. Four women in Chinatown |

5. A family experience |

6. Male and female Chinese populations |

7. A divided family |

8. Finding ourselves in history |

9. Interview with Lee Bick |

10. Gambling houses |

11. Prostitution during the Exclusion Period |

Secondary sources

1. Chinese immigration flows |

2. The Chinese in Canada |

3. Chinatowns: Towns within cities in Canada |

4. Gambling Canadians |

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Student tasks

Question: What were the consequences of the 1923 Exclusion Act for the Chinese-Canadian community?

When determining the consequences of the Exclusion Act (1923) for the Chinese-Canadian community, you may wish to consider the following aspects:

  • feelings amongst the Chinese community about inclusion and exclusion from white Canadian society
  • effects of immigration on individuals and communities
  • personal and familial hardships the Chinese-Canadian community faced during the time of the Exclusion Act (1923–1947)
  • other social, political and economic consequences.

Teacher notes

The following notes on topics addressed in the History Docs are intended to enhance teachers' understanding of the sources and ability to guide students in interpreting them.

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Historical context for teachers

Early Chinese immigration

  • Chinese immigrants began arriving in British Columbia in 1858 from the depleted gold mines of the California gold rush to take part in the Fraser Canyon gold rush.
  • The news of the Fraser and Thompson gold rushes quickly reached China, and the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Victoria directly from Hong Kong in the spring of 1859. An estimated 4000 Chinese people arrived in Victoria in 1860. By the early 1860s, it is estimated that there may have been as many as 6000 or 7000 Chinese people in territory that is now British Columbia.
  • Between 1881 and 1885, 17 000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada, most of them recruited to complete the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
  • Those who came to North America were mostly men (peasants, labourers and tradespeople). They arrived hoping to save enough money to send back to their families in China, usually with the intention of returning home after having amassed wealth.

Treatment of Chinese immigrants

  • For decades, various members of the federal and provincial governments put pressure on the federal government to discourage Chinese immigration for a variety of social, cultural and economic reasons. British Columbia had Canada’s largest concentration of Chinese immigrants and a legacy of anti-Chinese feelings.
  • Chinese people were often viewed as dirty and disease-ridden for living in crowded conditions, and as morally inferior due to their links to gambling, opium smoking and different cultural traditions. White Canadians claimed that Chinese workers should work for lower wages, since they ate different food, had no families and lived in poorer housing.
  • The federal and British Columbia governments passed numerous anti-Chinese laws between 1875 and 1923. In British Columbia, they were disallowed from acquiring certain types of land, prevented from working in underground mines, excluded from admission to provincially run homes for the aged and unwell, prohibited from being hired to work in the public service, and disqualified from voting. They were also restricted from entering many professions, including law, accounting and pharmacy.
  • In 1885, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 that required every Chinese worker and family member entering Canada to pay a $50 head tax.
  • Despite the $50 head tax, large numbers of Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. The head tax was raised to $100 in 1900; however, this also did not limit Chinese immigration, as over 8000 Chinese entered Canada in 1903. The $100 head tax was raised to $500 in 1903—which was more than two years’ wages for the average worker.
  • Throughout the head tax period, from 1886 to 1923, 82 379 Chinese entered Canada and paid the Canadian government over $23 million.
  • Chinese merchants formed the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CBA), with the first branch in Victoria in 1885 and the second one in Vancouver in 1895. These associations, and similar ones across Canada, performed important functions for Chinese-Canadian communities including: organizing social services, mediating disputes among members of the community, sending money to China and dealing with discrimination and segregation in Canadian society.

Chinese Exclusion Act

  • In the spring of 1922, two Members of Parliament (MPs) from British Columbia introduced a resolution in favour of the total exclusion of Chinese immigrants that was widely supported in the House of Commons.
  • In February 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 was repealed (cancelled) and replaced by the far more restrictive Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, which became known as the Exclusion Act. This Act replaced the head tax with an outright ban on Chinese immigration to Canada, with the exceptions of students, representatives of the Chinese government and their staffs, and merchants.
  • The Exclusion Act also stipulated that every person of Chinese origin in Canada was required to receive a certificate of registration within 12 months of the act coming into force. The Act also specified that those Chinese who wanted to temporarily leave the country had to register before doing so. Those who failed to register would be treated as new immigrants upon their return to Canada.
  • Anticipating the effects of the Exclusion Act, Chinese communities across Canada worked to defeat or change the bill before it came into effect on July 1, 1923. Committees were organized to conduct fundraising, newspaper editorials raised public awareness, and various social and religious organizations pressured various levels of government. The Chinese Association of Canada, representing several of the largest Chinese communities across the country, organized a representative committee to go to Ottawa to lobby (petition) against the bill.
  • Chinese communities also sought aid from various people and groups in China to stop the bill from passing. Appeals were made to Sun Yat-sen (president of the Kuomintang Government in China) to try and influence the Canadian government’s policy.
  • The Chinese government’s representative in Canada, Consul Tsur, warned that the new law would create negative feelings in China toward Canada, and threatened that China could boycott (not purchase or trade for) Canadian goods.
  • Despite these efforts, the only clause in the bill that was successfully changed was that illegal immigrants were allowed to pay $500 to be recognized as legal residents.
  • The Exclusion Act came into effect on Dominion Day (now called Canada Day)—July 1, 1923. Chinese-Canadians referred to Dominion Day as Humiliation Day, and closed their businesses and boycotted Dominion Day celebrations every July 1 from this point forward.
  • The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 (the Exclusion Act) was not repealed until May 1947 after much deliberation and hesitation by the federal and British Columbia governments. Chinese-Canadians were enfranchised, educational benefits were extended to Chinese-Canadian veterans, and Chinese in Canada were free to enter professions from which they were previously barred.