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Remembering the 1907 Vancouver Race Riot

September 7, 2007 marked the 100th anniversary of the “Anti-Oriental Riot” that took place in Vancouver. Hundreds of white Canadians, many of them recent immigrants or the children of immigrants marched into the Chinese and Japanese communities of the city. They beat up Asians and destroyed property in an organized act of vandalism.

It was a fairly minor incident compared to the kinds of violence that occurred elsewhere in the world around the same time. For example, in 1905 protesting rioters in the Russian capital on St. Petersburg were shot at point blank by the army. Dozens died. But in Canada, the “peaceable kingdom”, the Vancouver riot was significant.

Why did it happen? The white population had some legitimate grievances against Chinese and Japanese workers who accepted low wages and dangerous conditions. They had also been used successfully to break strikes. The Asians often lived in sub-standard housing and made little effort to integrate into the larger society. Most of them planned to make some money and go back to their homelands. Few spoke much English.

There were also, however, clear elements of what we would call racism today. Anglo-Saxons, full of the social-Darwinist ideas of the time, saw themselves as the top human race whose superiority was clearly demonstrated by the success of the British Empire and the American Republic in dominating much of the globe. “Orientals” were thought of as inscrutable, deceitful and incapable of assimilation.

Seeing Chinese men with their Manchu queues (pigtails) and Japanese men wearing hakama on formal occasions reinforced the cultural divide that separated the European and Asian communities.

At the time, immigration from China was held in check by the imposition of a tax on those arriving from that country, the now notorious “head tax”. There was no such tax on Japanese immigrants. Instead, the government of Japan would only allow a certain number of its citizens to leave for Canada.

Why was there a difference? Canada, a nation since 1867, was still only semi-independent, and our foreign policy was largely designed by the British government. (As late as 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically at war.)

Britain had defeated China in a series of conflicts in 1842, 1860 and 1899. China was weak and humiliated. There was no trouble in thumbing our nose at that sorry state. Japan, however, was a different story. Learning from the Chinese experience, Japan was rapidly modernizing and had already built a considerable military force. It had defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905. It was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Britain wanted badly to maintain an alliance that it had with this up and coming leader in Asia. Therefore, the two countries came to a "gentlemen’s agreement" designed to keep Canada happy without endangering Anglo-Japanese relations.

In Ottawa, the federal government was content with the deal, but local BC politicians tried continuously to keep the Japanese out of the country or, failing that, out of any position of influence in the province. For example, the BC government repeatedly voted to deny the franchise to people of Japanese descent even if they were born in Canada.

Things came to a boil when there was a report that ships were coming to Vancouver with more Asian immigrants. White workers and white supremacists of the Asian Exclusion League were outraged, and the crowd at a public protest meeting turned into a mob. The local police did little to intervene. Members of the Chinese community, for the most part, just stayed out of the way. The Japanese along Powell Street, however, organized their own defense. After all, it was only thirty years since armed samurai had walked the streets of Tokyo and Kyoto.

The Canadian Prime Minister at the time was Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He was a humane individual with a great vision of Canada as a place where French and English could live together. But even he could not rise above the prejudices of the day. He worked actively to keep Chinese immigration to a minimum. Noting the spirited defence of Powell Street during the riot, he commented that it might “make the Japs saucy”.

Nevertheless, he sent out a commission to investigate. The commission concluded that the white rioters were to blame, not the Asians who were the victims. The chief commissioner awarded significant financial compensation to the businesses whose windows had been smashed and so forth. His name was William Lyon Mackenzie King. Later, he would once again play an important role in the lives of Canadians of Japanese ancestry.

In 1942 now Prime Minister King agreed to the forced removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast of B.C. Again the motives were mixed. There was a genuine and understandable fear of an invasion of Canada by the forces of imperial Japan. Some Nisei had been at least partly educated in Japan, and their loyalty to Canada was suspect. Japanese community newspapers had supported the Japanese invasion of China and downplayed the atrocities that were part of the attacks. On the other hand, by this time many people in the Japanese enclaves had been born in British Columbia, spoke English and saw themselves as Canadians first. No evidence of complicity with Japan was found by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or Canadian military intelligence.

Rants by racist politicians in BC, fueled in part by resentment against the economic success of the diligent Issei and Nisei, made King fear more riots like the one he had investigated in 1907. To avoid such a situation and, in his mind, protect the Japanese-Canadians, it was better to remove them from their homes and relocate them in the interior.

Today most Canadians would agree that it was the wrong decision. The government gave in to the radical element and denied basic civil and human rights to those who were interned. This is especially evident in that much of their property was confiscated and never returned. Furthermore, they were not allowed to go back to their homes after the war.

In 1988 the government of Canada apologized to those who had been so badly wronged by an earlier government and society. The redress agreement included a token financial payment to the survivors and the establishment of a fund to be used to fight against any repetition of such treatment of any group in the country.

So where are we today? On the one hand, our protections have never been so secure given the Charter of Rights and a generally more knowledgeable and tolerant society. On the other hand, some individuals and groups are looked upon with hostility because of certain beliefs and customs, including clothing styles. A well-founded fear of terrorism has been allowed to spill over into legislation that denies basic legal rights to those suspected of planning terrorist acts. It would appear that some individuals are targeted unfairly.

Personally, I really dislike the hijab (headscarf) worn by some Muslim women, and I am repulsed by the veil that the even more conservative ones wear. But one of the hallmarks of democracy is that we defend the right of people to do whatever they wish as long as they are not breaking the law or posing a threat to others.

Many Canadians, myself included, worked for the Japanese-Canadian redress and praised the government when it finally delivered. Where are those same voices today when a new group of “enemy aliens” is under attack?



* This article originally appeared in "Nikkei Voice" and was contributed by Sedai - Japanese Canadian Legacy Project of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, Canada. The JCCC is a Discover Nikkei affiliate.

© 2008 George Hewson

About the Author

George Hewson is a teacher in the Education Department of the Royal Ontario Museum and specializes in the Japanese and Chinese galleries. He and his wife Gerry (nee Nishimura) operate Aikido Seishinkai, a school of Japanese martial arts and East Asian philosophy.

Updated July 2008

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