Notes on 51st Text for Reading Field: Roy

Canadian History, Week 8

to BC on Boat

Chinese immigrants on the deck of the ‘Black Diamond’ (sailing vessel, BC). c 1889.” Source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-118185.

Patricia E. Roy. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1989. [Google Books preview:]

Patricia E. Roy sets out A White Man’s Province as the first volume (regarded as ‘ground breaking’), in a projected three part series that would review the ‘Asian question’ — read anti-Asian sentiment — in British Columbia. In this introductory volume, she examines opposition to Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the province’s beginnings to the First World War. Volume II (now released), is entitled Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-1941. Volume III is slated to be a survey of the years from 1941 to the 1960s, when Canadian immigration laws ceased to overtly effect racial discrimination. Roy’s research into politicians’ papers, government documents, and the popular press supplies a great deal of detail. During the period Roy surveys in this first book, she argues, a ‘white man’s province’ was created by European settlers. Although British Columbians of Western European descent or heritage initially exhibited a tolerant attitude towards Asian ‘others,’ Roy describes a progressive slide into hostility. She finds ideas of ‘race’ (which had consequences in the realms of gender and class), combined with economics and political policy marginalized migrants from the ‘Far East.’


“Chinese immigrant’s hut, Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia,” dated August 1890. Source: Robert W. Reford / Library and Archives Canada / PA-118174.

Roy begins her examination with a description of colonial sojourners and the gold rush. Its advent supplied the initial ‘pull’ that brought migrants of all sorts to the region. She describes the Chinese arrivals as predominantly individual males. The government ‘head tax’ levied exclusively on Chinese immigrants effectively maintained that pattern. British Columbians voiced objection to the possibility that Chinese workers were benefiting at the expense of others through saving their wages while living frugally, only to leave without having contributed, through spending, to the province’s general revenues. For their part, as a class of immigrants, the Chinese had little choice but to accept their marginalized status. China, undergoing a chaotic internal struggle and internationally weak at the time, was in no position to assert itself on behalf of emigrant nationals.


New Chinese Home, Victoria, British Columbia,” dated c. 1900. Source: Ridsdale, G.F. / Library and Archives Canada / PA-122651.

‘Chinese,’ as a racialized construct, took into account geographical and cultural origin, but was built primarily on physical appearance. Roy’s analysis suggests that the issue of ‘race,’ and fears that ‘white’ culture was vulnerable to attack, were exploited by politicians, capitalists, and media elites to confuse, complicate, and diffuse what would otherwise likely have been viewed as a straightforward conflict between capital and labour. Evoking the construct served to limit the number Chinese people who could come to the region and restricted their economic and political opportunities after they arrived.

rail road workers

Ernest Brown, photograph, “Chinese at work on C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) in Mountains, 1884.” Source: Boorne & May / Library and Archives Canada / C-006686B.

During the period from Confederation to the First World War, Roy details the segregation of Chinese and Japanese communities from white areas of residence within settlements. There was little interaction, beyond competition in the marketplace across that imagined boundary. Although some distinction was to some extent made between Chinese and Japanese peoples – the Japanese arrived later and for a time their consul succeeded in presenting them as superior — increasingly, media reports painted Asian peoples (collectively termed ‘Asiatics’, ‘Orientals’, or ‘Mongolians’), as dangerous because reputed to be immoral, slovenly, and ‘plague ridden.’ However, as indicated above, Roy argues that the real fear was that these immigrants were in a position to succeed economically where British Columbians would, or could, not. The Canadian Pacific Railway, the coal mines of Vancouver Island, and the canneries along the Fraser River, for example, were accepted by Asian workers as a means of gainful employment even though the wages were extremely low – much lower than ‘white’ labourers were compelled, or willing, to accept. Rather myopically (in retrospect), instead of combining with workers who had been racialized as Asian, the racializing white British Columbians sought to have the numbers of people originating in Asia, but residing in B.C., restricted by provincial and federal legislation.

Restrictive measures were not supported by Prime Minister Laurier. In 1900, having been pressed by provincial politicians to increase the head tax and introduce a language test (the Natal Act), he agreed only to set up a royal commission on Chinese and Japanese immigration. Eventually the head tax was raised (to $500). ‘White’ British Columbians were not entirely satisfied. A number of other federal and provincial policies did not mesh, so that disallowance was frequently invoked by Ottawa, and the period was one of pronounced political volatility (for example, the province saw five different premiers come to office in the space of only two years). As well, the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Commerce and Navigation placed a road block in the way of attempts to penalize the immigrant group from Japan on the basis of national origin.

In 1907, violence directed against people living in Canada and of Asian descent erupted in Vancouver after a four year period of economic prosperity in the province (the which Roy characterizes as a ‘lull before a storm’). A group calling itself the Asiatic Exclusion League rioted in Chinatown and the Japanese Quarter. They achieved at least part of their goal: Japanese contract labour was officially limited in the mining, fishing, and lumbering industries. Roy describes the attitudes of ‘white’ British Columbians towards Asian immigration and Asian countries between 1908 and 1914 as unanimously exclusionary.

Additional resources:

Japanese Canadian Photograph Collection, University of British Columbia Digital Collections and Services website,


Note: the term ‘white’ can be problematic. At best it implies a monolithic, coherent social group, at worst a ‘race’, neither of which in fact existed. ‘Whiteness’ was variously applied and taken away depending on the nature of any given socio-political question that at base was about access to economic resources and political power.

See, for example, Vic Satzewich, “Whiteness Limited: Racialization and the Social Construction of ‘Peripheral Europeans’,” pdf,

Patricia K. Wood, “Defining ‘Canadian’: Anit-Americanism and identity in Sir John A. Macdonald’s Nationalism,” Journal of Canadian Studies online text, (Sunday, 1 July 2001): page 13, who notes, “whiteness was earned or repealed by actions, not by skin colour.”


“Vancouver’s Chinatown: Past, Present, and Future (Part 1 of 2),” posted to You Tube by instrcc, 4 August 2009.

“Vancouver’s Chinatown: Past, Present, and Future (Part 2 of 2),” posted to You Tube by instrcc, 4 August 2009.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 8 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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