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Correcting a racial injustice

The Story

Chinese- and Indo-Canadians were denied the right to vote until 1947. Japanese-Canadians were finally allowed to vote a year later, in 1948. This CBC Television clip commemorates the 40th anniversary of Asian-Canadians gaining the vote in Canada. At a Vancouver ceremony, lawyer Thomas Berger stresses the importance of remembering how Canada denied Asian-Canadians the vote for so long. These injustices, he says, "are part of our past, part of our history; we can't wash our hands of them." 

Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: April 1, 1987
Guest(s): Thomas Berger, Roy Miki
Reporter: Terry Dolan
Duration: 1:19

Did You know?

• The Dominion Elections Act of 1920 guaranteed almost universal suffrage. But one of the major exceptions was that people disenfranchised for "reasons of race" in a province would still be excluded from voting federally. British Columbia, which had more Asian immigrants than most other provinces, had provincially disenfranchised all people of Asiatic origin since the late 19th century. They considered Asian to mean Chinese, Japanese and "Hindus" (the word they used to describe anyone from the Indian subcontinent, regardless of religion).

• Canada had a long history of treating Asian immigrants extremely harshly. They were thought to be so different that they were referred to as "unassimilable." This meant that Canadians believed Asian people were innately incapable of taking on the (mainly British) characteristics they considered necessary to be a "good Canadian."

• In 1885, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that the Chinese immigrant "has no common interest with us, and while he gives us labour he is paid for it, and is valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement which we may borrow from the United States on hire and return it to the owner on the south side of the line... he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote."

• According to A History of the Vote in Canada, a delegation of Japanese-Canadians asked Parliament for the right to vote in 1936. This wasn't well received by Prime Minister Mackenzie King or most MPs. One B.C.-area MP suggested that "the whole affair was a plot to enable the Japanese government to plant spies in British Columbia."

• During the Second World War, approximately 500 Chinese-Canadians fought overseas for Canada. This contribution to the war effort was definitely a factor in changing public opinion about the Chinese in Canada. Chinese-Canadians finally gained the vote in 1947. That same year, Indo-Canadians (formerly known as "Hindus") also got the right to vote. British Columbia first granted that right provincially, which led to Canada granting the right federally.

• After the war, attitudes toward Japanese-Canadians weren't nearly as favourable as attitudes toward Chinese- or Indo-Canadians, since Japan had been the enemy in the war.

• The horrors of the war made Canadians generally more sensitive to racial discrimination, however. In 1948, section 14(2)(i) of the Federal Dominion Act was repealed. This was the section that said a Canadian could only vote in a federal election if they were allowed to vote in the provincial election of their home province. This meant that all Japanese-Canadians could finally vote federally.
• Japanese-Canadians got the provincial right to vote in British Columbia in 1949.

• During the 20th century, Asian immigrants were the only immigrants denied the vote strictly based on race. Aboriginal Canadians continued to face heavy restrictions until 1960, however. And religious groups such as Mennonites and Doukhobors also faced voting restrictions at various times throughout the century, mainly because they refused military service. The last of these religion-based restrictions (denying Doukhobors the federal vote) was lifted in 1955.


Voting in Canada: How a Privilege Became a Right more