(Photo credit: Boarded-up businesses after race riots in Chinatown at northwest corner of Carrall Street at Pender, 1907: Vancouver Public Library #940)
In recognition of Asian Heritage Month, we remember a painful part of British Columbia’s labour history: The Asiatic Exclusion League.
With high unemployment and a recession in full swing, the Asiatic Exclusion League 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. This ignored the fact that Chinese lumber mill workers had taken part in the city’s two general strikes, while staging several walkouts of their own during the heyday of the OBU – not to mention countless other contributions to British Columbia’s economy.
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 Sept. 1st, 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.”
The next few months saw considerable activity for the new organization, which attracted several hundred supporters in Victoria. It expanded to open a branch in New Westminster with another forty members. It was avowedly “anti-political”, aside from what they called “the oriental issue” but broke up due to political infighting and personal rivalries after less than one year. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League rose to take their place.
On September 7th, 1907 thousands of League members 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 heads to Powell Street to attack Japantown. However, the Japanese community is 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.
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