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Chinese-Canadians get the vote in 1947

They risked their lives to help build Canada's railroad in the 1880s. But as soon as the work was done, Canada just wanted them gone. It was the beginning of a difficult history for Chinese immigrants to Canada. They struggled through the head tax, personal attacks and job discrimination. But the Chinese in Canada persevered. And today, Chinese-Canadians are an integral part of Canada's multicultural society, forging their own cultural identities.

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Harry Ho and Roy Mah both fought for Canada during the Second World War. But because of their Chinese heritage, they couldn't even vote in a Canadian election at the time. As Mah explains in this CBC Television clip, many Chinese-Canadians believed that fighting for Canada during the war was strategically wise. How could Canada deny Chinese-Canadians the vote after they bravely served the country overseas? They were right -- as of 1947, Chinese-Canadians were finally granted the right to vote in Canadian elections. 
• Approximately 500 Chinese-Canadian soldiers fought for Canada during the Second World War. According to historian Anthony B. Chan in his 1983 book Gold Mountain, this was by no means only a strategic move to get the vote. Canada and China were allies in the war, with the same enemies: "as Chinese and as Canadians they were doubly pressured, and they, too, became caught up in the fight to save Western democracy and free enterprise."

• The vote was definitely a consideration, however; and the Chinese-Canadian contribution to Canada's war effort clearly helped. Anthony B. Chan points out that a prominent white lawyer, white church groups and organized labour were also involved in trying to get Chinese-Canadians the right to vote. In an earlier era this involvement from outside the Chinese community would be unusual, writes Chan. "But this was 1947, and still fresh were memories of World War II in which Chinese-Canadian troops proved themselves courageous battlefield compatriots."

• 1947 was also the year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted. While this was a major step, it didn't mean the gates were wide open for Chinese immigrants. At first, it was really only the wives of Canadian citizens and unmarried children under the age of 18 who were added to the list of admissible Chinese immigrants. It wasn't until 1967 that Chinese immigrants were admitted under the same criteria as people of other origin.

• Chinese-Canadians were finally allowed to become Canadian citizens in 1947 as well. Technically, this was the first year that anyone could become a Canadian citizen, since Canadian citizenship per se didn't exist prior to that year.  Before 1947, Canadians were considered "British subjects living in Canada.  Because of their race, however, Chinese-Canadians were excluded from that category, even if they were born in Canada. It wasn't until 1947 that they could have the same rights of citizenship as other Canadians.

• Prior to 1947, the right to vote federally had been denied all Asians in Canada, which included Chinese-, Japanese- and Indian- (South Asian) Canadians. Both Chinese- and Indian-Canadians were allowed to vote by 1947. And by 1948, Japanese-Canadians had the right to vote in federal elections.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: May 15, 1997
Guests: Harry Ho, Roy Mah
Reporter: Sudha Krishna
Duration: 5:26

Last updated: August 20, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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