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Attitudes towards Chinese immigration

Overview of the set

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Primary sources

1. The “Heathen Chinee” in British Columbia |

2. An act to regulate the Chinese population of British Columbia, 1884|

3. Sir Matthew Begbie’s comments on Chinese immigration |


4. An argument in opposition to “Oriental” enfranchisement |

5. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988 |

6. Chinese moving to suburban “Asiancourt” |


7. Clyne wants to see Canada remain white |


8. Business leaders welcome cash influx |


9. Canada planning human smuggling crackdown |


10. The Chinese integration issue in Richmond, British Columbia |

11. The Chinese integration issue in Richmond, British Columbia |

12. The Chinese integration issue in Richmond, British Columbia |

Secondary sources


1. A look at chain immigration |


2. The issues of race |


3. From China to Canada |

4. The Chinese in Canada |

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Student tasks

Question: Identify the continuities and changes in attitudes toward Chinese immigrants and their immigration to Canada between 1875 to 1930, and 1975 to 2011.

Teacher notes

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Historical context for teachers

Early arrival of Chinese immigrants

  • Chinese immigrants began arriving in British Columbia in 1858 from the depleted gold mines of the California gold rush and directly from China to take part in the Fraser Canyon gold rush. 
  • By 1881, 4350 Chinese were living in Canada. Those who came were mostly men—peasants, labourers and tradespeople—who arrived hoping to remit (send back) whatever savings they could afford to aid their families in China, usually with the intention of returning home after having amassed wealth.
  • Chinese immigrants faced many hardships in Canada, including the difficulty of learning a new language, isolation from family, low pay, dangerous work and a long history of racial discrimination from the government and individual citizens. 
  • The Canadian and British Columbian 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.

Restricting Chinese immigration 1885-1947

  • 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. Certain governmental representatives, tourists, merchants, scientists and students were exempt from the 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 did not limit Chinese immigration as over 8000 Chinese entered Canada in 1903. The $100 head tax was raised to $500 in 1903—this 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. 
  • In February 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1885 was repealed (cancelled) and replaced by the far more restrictive Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, also known as the Exclusion Act. This act replaced prohibitive fees 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 Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 also stipulated that every person of Chinese origin in Canada was required to register with the government and receive a certificate of registration within 12 months of the act coming into force. The Act also specified that those Chinese who wanted to 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.
  • The effects of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 were strongly felt by the Chinese community. While Chinese men living in Canada visited China whenever they could, they were, for the most part, isolated from their families. The 1931 census found that there were 1240 Chinese men to every 100 Chinese women in Canada. 
  • Throughout World War II, from 1939 and 1945, Chinese Canadians contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, in many cases believing that their efforts might win them the right to vote after the war and improve their status in Canada. 
  • In May 1947, after much deliberation and hesitation by the federal government and the British Columbian government, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed. 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. 

 Chinese immigration 1947-present

  • The restrictions to Chinese immigration were gradually removed. The age of admissible children was raised to 19 in 1949, and to 21 in 1950. In 1951, Chinese Canadian women could bring in husbands, just as men brought in wives. In 1954, naturalization rules (rules governing how foreigners become citizens) were relaxed and, a year later, the age limit of admissible children was boosted to 25.
  • Not until 1967, however, were Chinese and other Asian immigrants admitted under the same criteria as others.
  • In 1971, the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, declared that Canada would adopt a multicultural policy. Canada would recognize and respect that its society included diversity in languages, customs, religions and cultures. 
  • In 1982, multiculturalism was recognized under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, in 1988, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was enacted. The implementation of a multicultural policy, in theory, meant the end of institutional discrimination against Chinese Canadians.
  • Between 1966 and 1970, 33 618 Chinese immigrants came to Canada, and 56 713 came between 1971 and 1975. In the period between 1972 and 1978, 67 000 people from Hong Kong alone came to Canada, and 130 410 came between 1988 and 1992.
  • Changes to Canadian immigration law in 1985 promoted the arrival of wealthy entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The federal government expanded its Business Immigration Program to allow self-employed persons, entrepreneurs and investors to immigrate to Canada, based mainly on their ability to invest in business and create jobs. To qualify as an investor in 1985, a business person had to have a net worth of at least $500 000, and had to invest at least $250 000 in a Canadian business.
  • In recent decades, however, the majority of new Chinese-Canadians have actually been middle-class professionals and workers in the service industries. Throughout the 1980s, they, along with many Chinese in Canada previously residing in traditional Chinatowns, tended to move and settle in suburbs of major cities, particularly Toronto and Vancouver.
  • Many Hong Kong residents chose to emigrate to Canada due to the political uncertainties surrounding the transfer of Hong Kong from the British to China in 1997 (Hong Kong had previously been a British crown colony).
  • From 1991 to 1996, about 30 000 people from Hong Kong emigrated annually to Canada, comprising about 20 percent of the total number of immigrants to Canada. 
  • Asia’s rapidly growing economy in the 1990s offered economic opportunities to the many recent arrivals to Canada from Hong Kong, meaning many Hong Kong business people spent much of their time flying back and forth between Asia and Canada. The term “astronaut lifestyle” has been coined to describe this process.
  • By 1996, the Chinese Canadian population reached 920 000, with 34 percent living in British Columbia and 46 percent living in Ontario. 
  • In the 2000s, mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong and Taiwan, provided the largest source of Chinese immigration to Canada, averaging well over 30 000 immigrants per year.