The Asiatic Exclusion League Riot, 1907

Published by BC Labour Heritage Centre on

With high unemployment and a recession in full swing, the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was formed by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council in August 1907, with the aim of “keeping Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia”, viewing Asian immigration as a threat to non-Asian workers. Its first act was to plan a parade and rally in downtown Vancouver for Saturday, September 7.
Unfortunately, this type of racist labour organization was not a new idea in BC. In Victoria in the late 1870s, the low wage competition prompted unrest and discussion among many workers with the result that on September 1, 1878, a general union called the Workingman’s Protective Association was formed in the province’s capital. Apparently, this organization was not very concerned with collective bargaining but rather with: “the mutual protection of the working class of BC against the great influx of Chinese; to use all legitimate means for the suppression of their immigration; to assist each other in the obtaining of employment; and to devise means for the amelioration of the condition of the working class of this Province in general.”

(Smashed window of a barber’s shop with a boy to one side, 1907: Vancouver Public Library #941)

(Chinese buildings and businesses damaged by race riots in the 500 block Carrall Street (west side): Vancouver Public Library #939).

On September 5, in Bellingham Washington, just 40 kilometers to the south, gangs of white thugs rounded up the city’s East Indian mill workers and ordered them out of town. Many headed north to Vancouver by train or on foot to escape the violence, but they would find little refuge. The AEL had already placed South Asians clearly in its sights, with demands to prevent the landing of the steamship Athenian because it was carrying 150 ‘Hindus’ from Hong Kong.

As the South Asian refugees arrived at Vancouver AEL organizers forged ahead with a plan to parade through the streets, carrying signs and flags calling for “A White Canada”.   On September 7, 1909 while a huge crowd listened to speeches outside City Hall, Lieutenant Governor James Dunsmuir was hung in effigy — not because he was the worst anti-union coal mine owner in BC — but because he refused to give assent to legislation that would further restrict Asiatic immigration to BC. A capitalist to the core, Dunsmuir exploited immigrant labour to keep his profits high.

The parade and rally turned violent. Thousands of Asiatic Exclusion League supporters and members of the general public rioted in Vancouver, marching into Chinatown and destroying homes and businesses. Windows are smashed, stores looted, and many Chinese people are beaten. After venting their fury on Chinatown, the crowd headed to Powell Street to attack Japantown. However, the Japanese community was forewarned and arms themselves and the crowd is beaten back.

By 1921, the Asiatic Exclusion League, somewhat dormant since the 1907 riot, resurfaced and claimed to have 40,000 B.C. members. Pressure from this group led to the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which ended virtually all Chinese immigration to Canada. Only teachers, church personnel and consular staff are allowed in. The impact of this was immediate: Asian workers made up 20 percent of the workforce in 1918, yet only 12 percent by 1925. Over the next twenty years, no more than 50 Chinese immigrants were able to make their way to Canada.
It took until 1947 for The Chinese Exclusion Act to be repealed. On April 22, 2018, the City of Vancouver formally apologized to the Chinese community for their role in creating legislation, regulations and policies that contributed to the historical discrimination faced by the community. This followed a formal apology from the Provincial Government of BC in May of 2014 which included the creation of a legacy fund to support educational initiatives.