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Chinese history needed in textbooks, forum told

Moderator Wei Shao listens to a speaker at a Monday night forum, alongside (from right) Richmond Centre MLA Teresa Wat, SUCCESS CEO Queenie Choo and Ricky Li, president of Association of Chinese Cultural Promotion - Canada.  - Matthew Hoekstra
Moderator Wei Shao listens to a speaker at a Monday night forum, alongside (from right) Richmond Centre MLA Teresa Wat, SUCCESS CEO Queenie Choo and Ricky Li, president of Association of Chinese Cultural Promotion - Canada.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra

A lack of public understanding surrounding discrimination against Chinese in B.C. is standing in the way of an apology, charged Chinese community leaders at a public forum Monday night in Richmond.

"No one here has learned about this history in our textbooks, anywhere in the world. So many of us have a different level of understanding about this part of history," said Norman Sung. "In order to make it right, it's important to increase the education about this part of history."

At least 250 people filled a banquet room at Radisson Hotel Vancouver Airport to hear opinions on the B.C. government's planned apology to the Chinese community. It was the last of seven such forums held throughout B.C. ahead of the B.C. government's formal apology, expected during the spring legislature session.

The consultations are designed to help determine the wording and delivery of the apology for historical wrongs, but the government isn't considering financial compensation.

Sung, former president of the Richmond Chinese Community Society, suggested the forums served as an opening to a "more appropriate reconciliation process."

Henry Beh, executive director for the society, said B.C.'s first Chinese immigrants made significant contributions to building the railway and fishing industry, and an apology for unfair treatment is "a must."

"It has to be honest. It has to be sincere and respectful," said Beh. "I encourage the B.C. government (to) include this in the education … and to build some legacy in the museums so that people can understand."

Chinese community leader Tung Chan also keyed on education—for children and adults.

"An apology is only the beginning. Words must be accompanied by action," he said. "It's only when we have a clear understanding of why it happened that we can prevent history from repeating itself."

B.C.'s record of racial discrimination includes denying the vote to Chinese and Indian immigrants in 1872 and restricting Asian immigration in the 1930s.

Records gleaned from the B.C. legislative library include 89 laws, some of which were passed in B.C. but struck down by Ottawa because they strayed into federal jurisdiction over immigration. An apology to residents of Chinese descent was postponed last year after a document from Premier Christy Clark's staff was leaked, describing a plan to use that and other ethnic appeals to build support for the B.C. Liberal Party.

A crowd of mostly ethnic Chinese and government staff was watched by several security guards as speakers—some of whom spoke in Chinese—made their points in front of the government minister responsible for multiculturalism, Teresa Wat.

Wat, elected Richmond Centre's MLA last spring, opened the evening by noting Richmond is the "most Asian city" in Canada, and said the Chinese community is part of B.C.'s legacy.

"Chinese immigrants have been coming to B.C. for centuries in Richmond. Many Chinese worked in canneries for companies such as B.C. Packers in Steveston. British Columbia's salmon canning industry would never have succeeded without the contribution of Chinese workers."

Bill Chu, who leads the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, has sought a process of reconciliation with the government for years, and has taken issue with the government's current approach. He said the government has "put the cart before the horse" by proposing an apology without further educating the public about the history of discrimination.

Chu added the forums are only "feeding a growing misperception of reverse discrimination and that Chinese are over-demanding," and said the government is creating further division by holding press conferences exclusively for Chinese media.

Richmond resident Erika Simm questioned the fairness of an apology that singles out a group of people.

"What about the native children who were forcefully taken away by government from their parents? Many of them were abused in schools and foster homes. And what about the desperate parents of these children. Is that worth less than the $500 head tax?"

Simm told the forum many ethnic groups in Canada suffered discrimination in the past. It's part of Canada's "historic darker side," she said.

"We must accept the history and learn from it, and move onward and upward. To apologize to only one group for past wrongs is to dismiss the wrongs done to others."

In 2012 the B.C. government issued a formal apology for the Second World War-era internment of Japanese residents.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology to Chinese Canadians in 2006, and offered $20,000 to approximately 400 surviving head tax payers or their widows. The head tax was designed to deter Chinese immigration to Canada.

Legislative discrimination against Chinese in B.C.

•1855: Colony of Vancouver Island requires $10 for each male from China or any person born of Chinese parents

•1875: Chinese banned from voting in provincial elections

•1878: Law made requiring all Chinese residents over age 12 to pay $10 per quarter in place of paying other taxes, but courts strike it down

•1884: Chinese Regulation Act impose $10 head tax, limit customs and force higher standard of living; disallowed by federal government

•1886: Motion made to impose annual tax of $10 on "every male of 18 years who wears long hair in the shape of a tail or queue"

•1888: No man with hair longer than five-and-a-half inches could be employed by Canadian Pacific Railway

•1891: B.C. asks federal government to raise $50 head tax to $200

•1896: Chinese and Japanese disfranchised from municipal elections

•1912: Premier addresses legislature on immigration; "Exclusion of Asiatics" is title of address

•1919: Law bans Chinese people from employing or having managerial oversight over women in factories, restaurants or laundries

*Source: B.C. government (embracebc.ca)

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