What Canada's 'Yellow Peril' teaches us about this migrant moment - Macleans.ca

What Canada’s ‘Yellow Peril’ teaches us about this migrant moment

History has plenty to tell us about this moment of fraught borders—and about the consequences of racist government policies

James Pon, 88, photographed at his home in Toronto. He still has the original documents showing the Chinese Head Tax paid ($500), for each his mother and him, in 1922. Pon says he almost cries every time he speaks about his father, who borrowed the $1000 to bring the two to Canada, taking 17 years to repay the debt. James Pon was sent to live, and work, on his own at the age of twelve, because his family couldn't afford to keep him. On Wednesday, June 21st, James Pon and his wife, Vera Wong Pon, will be joining other Chinese immigrants on a historic train to Ottawa to attend an official statement of apology to be read by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons on the 22nd. (Peter Power/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

James Pon, 88, photographed at his home in Toronto in 2006, shows the original documents showing the Chinese Head Tax paid ($500), for each his mother and him, in 1922. (Peter Power/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

It’s September 7, 1907, and a parade has just started on Main Street, just outside Vancouver’s City Hall, with hundreds marching to the tune of “Rule Britannia.” The song was a strange choice, given that the protesters were actually objecting to Britain’s rule, which had recently told the province of British Columbia to stand down when it tried to get tough on Asian immigration.

By the time the group reaches Chinatown, it degenerates into a riotous mob of several thousand angry individuals, armed with “For a White Canada” pennants and the righteous anger that comes from watching the Lieutenant-Governor burned in effigy. It was the beginning of a two-day terror campaign against residents of Chinatown and “Japtown,” the latter of which endured the brunt of the hostility and suffered the most damage.

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Some blamed the United States, since “anti-Oriental riots” seemed to be spreading northwards along the Pacific coast. Bellingham, Wash., for example, had seen white mob violence against “Hindoos” (in fact, Sikhs, but “Hindoo” was at the time a common catch-all phrase used by American media to refer to South Asians), which drove refugees across the border and into British Columbia. In 1907, the Globe and Mail reported that these were followed by about 30 white supremacists who immediately began agitating. It wasn’t likely that Vancouver residents needed much help channeling their anger: Between the aftermath of the financial panic of 1907, a recent uptick in Japanese immigration, and the new refugees, the locals were eager to demonstrate they weren’t willing to play “sanctuary city.”

Fast-forward a century-plus and it feels as if time might, indeed, be a flat circle. Across Canada, border towns are already experiencing an influx of asylum seekers fleeing the United States—on foot. In America, white nationalism has re-emerged amid recent “Go-back-to-your-own-country” shootings in Washington state and Kansas; in Canada, too, hate crimes—including mosque shootings, anti-Muslim rallies, swastikas on prayer houses, sidewalks and in universities—appear to be on the rise.

An RCMP officer warns a man to cross at the legal border crossing or he will be arrested at the border from New York into Canada on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in Hemmingford, Quebec. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

An RCMP officer warns a man to cross at the legal border crossing or he will be arrested at the border from New York into Canada on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in Hemmingford, Quebec. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Although there’s an important historical connection between our immigration policies and those in the United States (we’ll get to that), white supremacy isn’t something we need to import. Not now. And not back in 1907, either, when we had our own, rich history of white nationalism to draw upon. Canada had established a discriminatory Head Tax on Chinese immigrants in 1885, making Yellow Peril official policy. Less than two years later, an angry mob torched a Chinese/Canadian camp near Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. Terror acts like that, plus the 1907 incident, might’ve been perpetrated by rogue groups of radicalized white nationalists frustrated by financial hardship (and, in all likelihood, hopped up on too much whisky) but, in fact, their actions generally reflected the state’s position.

So too does contemporary white mob violence trickle down from America’s official immigration policies, both of which paint Latin Americans and Muslims as security risks. In 1902, for example, a Royal Commission declared Asians were “unfit” for Canadian society and a “danger” to national security. After the 1907 Vancouver riots, the federal government concluded that the Chinese were responsible for the scourge of vice—mostly drugs and prostitution—a discovery that justified further restrictions on Asian immigration. One measure, the 1908 Continuous Journey Regulation, required immigrants arrive directly from their country of origin—with no stopovers—a devious rule designed to make immigration from distant regions next-to-impossible. The most well-known victims of this were the Punjabi passengers on board the S.S. Komagata Maru (which set out from Hong Kong but stopped in Shanghai and Yokohama) who weren’t allowed to disembark in Vancouver. After being confined to the ship for two months, the Maru was sent to India, where the “agitators” were arrested. Nineteen were shot.

Why didn’t Canada just ban Asian immigration outright? That was, after all, what the United States did in 1882 with its Chinese Exclusion Act—the first historical precedent for today’s “Muslim ban” that refuses immigrants from specific countries.

Well, the reason for Canada’s middle-of-the-road racist immigration policies can be summed up in two words: Rule Britannia.

As part of the Commonwealth—a global empire—immigration in Canada was complicated by a range of obligations and considerations. Consider the Sikhs, many of whom were veterans of the British army before they settled on the west coast of Canada. Also, friendly trade relationships with Japan, China and India had to be maintained and, as such, after every international incident, diplomats and dignitaries went into damage-control mode—literally, in the case of the 1907 riot, since the federal government promised to pay for repairs to property in Vancouver’s Japantown.

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In 1923, however, after 40 years of trying to solve trade issues and immigration anxieties through a balance of systemic discrimination and foreign diplomacy, Canada gave up its moderate approach to racism and instituted its own Chinese Exclusion Act—effectively a total ban. The “White Canada Forever” groups surely celebrated it as their own victory but, in fact, much credit was due the Americans, who had been pressuring Canada to enact a ban for years, citing “back-door” Chinese immigration through the porous border. The claim was that immigrants paid the “head tax” in Canada, then promptly migrated east and crossed into the United States from Ontario or Quebec. To keep the flow of traffic and trade moving quickly across the border, Canada gave up a little sovereignty—not to mention dignity—and adopted the draconian total American ban.

Although Trump’s second travel ban against what is now six majority-Muslim countries has already been stayed by at least two federal judges, a debate over our “porous border” in the light of American crackdowns and deportations is inevitable. It’d be smart to do some thinking ahead of time about how much we’re willing to give up for pre-clearance and other measures that keep borders friendly and trade flowing. Bill C-23, for example, which would give U.S. border guards more power to interrogate Canadians on our soil, is looking a lot less appealing now than during its first reading, given that America’s Department of Homeland Security is now openly hostile to both foreigners and those who seem like they might have foreign-ish values—like Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of an American icon, or a group of volunteer relief-workers from a Hamilton church.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. “Yellow peril” appears absurd to a modern reader, and turning our back on our global obligations for the sake of U.S. trade relations—it seems clear in the light of the present—was an obvious error and egregious abuse of human rights. But these days, we are having something of a Chamberlain moment: in the choice between a free-and-easy border and our obligations to refugees and Latin trade partners, it’s time to choose the latter.

Intolerance and discrimination aren’t cross-border imports. But willingly opening our borders to white nationalism would put us on the wrong side of history—again.


What Canada’s ‘Yellow Peril’ teaches us about this migrant moment

  1. Ahh yes……Sikhs, Tamils, Boat People, Japanese internment camps, sending back Jews…..we’ve done it all and yet Canada is a bigger and better place because of the ones who got through our racist barriers.

    We never learn…..but this time, it will all change

    There are 60M refugees alone on the planet. And here we sit with all this empty land.

    • its not your land to give away…just saying….
      From a Canadian
      l will no longer stand quietly by and let Radical Islam put down roots in my Canada…
      l will resist their attempt to take away my free speech
      l look at Greece
      l look at Italy
      l look at Germany
      l look at France
      l look at England
      l think to myself why would l want this outdated farce in my Canada….
      why would l want Sharia Law in my Canada…
      why would l want no go zones in my Canada…
      why on earth would someone even consider this in this day and age
      Why should Canadian women cower in fear that Sharia Law might gain roots in Canada
      lm guessing that politicians have gotten so desperate for votes their now willing to sell out ordinary Canadians and their values for a few votes no mater where or how they get them
      lm all for responsible immigration….
      This push to fill my Canada with radicals is not responsible immigration !!
      when they pull up to the Canadian Border in a taxi only to be directed by US Customs where to go and cross illegally into Canada l can only shake my head in disbelief
      Why should we take these folks in when they break the law to get into Canada trying to jump the queue that other folks have waited years to get in….
      L think a wise idea would to be to slow down on the Islamic immigration into Canada until we see how Greece,Italy,France and England work out.
      Gotta be honest here…doesn’t seem to be working out to well over there folks…am hoping Canadians are smarter than l give them credit for at this point
      This is your future folks…choose wisely
      l will no longer stand by quietly on the sidelines and see my Canada given away for a few simple votes
      l will engage my family
      l will engage my friends
      l will engage my coworkers
      l will ask them to also engage their own family’s…their own friends and their coworkers as well
      l will not go quietly into that dark muslim night….

      A Canadian

      • The authorities have been informed about your post

        • Sounds like Emily needs a free helicopter tour of the Pacific ocean.

        • Emilyone: Why are you trying to suppress freedom of speech. I do not need you to control what I read. I am intelligent and not so ignorant that I can not read someone’s comment and decided for my self if I agree or not. It is people like you that I totally disagree with: based on the fact that you think I need you to decide what I can and can not read. There is nothing hate full in Comox Courtney statement so go back to bed pull the blankets over you head and lock you doors.

          • I’m afraid you’re not allowed to threaten people in Canada……especially a specific group.

        • Inform them all you want. What that person wrote isn’t illegal…..yet. Of course, if the Liberals have their way eventually anything critical of Islam will be against the law, which is why it’s important that we oppose their Islamist agenda.

          • It applies to everyone.

  2. Canada was founded by whites, it is a white country, and no other race is expected by jewish media like MacCleans to just sit by and become a minority in their own homeland. If a group of non-whites are out-bred by foreign invaders in their own nations like the Chinese are doing to muslims in western china and Tibetans in Tibet, the left calls that genocide. When muslims do it to white countries, it’s celebrated as “diversity” and “multiculturalism” and the surge in muslim on non-muslim sexual violence and terror attacks is ignored and downplayed by jewish media, as in the case of the syrian refugee father sexually assaulting several underage girls at the west Edmonton mall last month, to the murder of corporal Nathan Cirillo by an arab muslim, and the stabbing of two other Canadian serviceman by a somali immigrant in Toronto in March of last year. Imagine if white supremacists did 9/11, we wouldn’t hear the end of it. But we rarely hear about 9/11 anymore. And people who do remember that day and who caused it are routinely mocked by anti-whites and jewish media as being fearmongers. Meanwhile we’re supposed to all be aware of that one anecdotal drunk guy in Kansas who fired off a couple shots at some sikhs as if that’s relevant, while major terror attacks by muslim refugees like Nice, Paris, Brussels, Berlin and more which have impacted innumerably more lives are just callously ignored by the left.

    • Canada has never been a white country.

      It already had inhabitants when we arrived.

      Your post in gibberish. See a doctor.

      • Canada was founded by whites. Its oldest permanently inhabited city, Quebec City, was settled and founded by white Frenchmen. Nomadic paleolithic tribesmen who had no concept of property or permanent settlement doesn’t constitute a country. Also, many leading academics now recognize white Europeans colonized eastern North America thousands of years before non-whites migrated through the Berring straight and a white genetic legacy exists among North-Eastern indians. Whites were here first. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solutrean_hypothesis

        • Natives were here in all of the Americas for thousands of years dude…..lying to yourself won’t change that.

          • And Canada wasn’t founded by them. White Greeks lived in what is now Turkey before Turks did. That doesn’t mean Turks didn’t found what is now the nation of Turkey. Canada was founded by white settlers. Its oldest permanent cities and legal constructs were all founded by white settlers. Many indians weren’t even granted citizenship until after the 1800s. It’s laws and customs were all adopted by white men. Canada is a white country. Stop being a nihilistic contrarian.

          • Lyle Chipperson


          • It’s the only possible response to your twaddle.

      • Still not an argument. This is why the left is collapsing across the West.

        • LOL well the ‘left’ isn’t collapsing…….however I’m not left.

          You, however, are crazy.

    • How exactly does a person get to the point of thinking it is socially acceptable to rant about Jewish media?

      • Well when you hate FN, Muslims, gays, women etc…..Jews aren’t going to be left out. .