British Columbia

Vancouver city council approves apology to Chinese community

The City of Vancouver will issue a formal apology for racist historical laws that were enforced at the municipal level against Chinese residents.

City will also push for a UNESCO heritage designation for Chinatown

Years of research by the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People (HDC) advisory group found a multitude of both blatant and clandestine racist policies in Vancouver's history. (CBC)

Vancouver city council has agreed to issue a formal apology for the historical discrimination of Chinese residents in Vancouver.

The unanimous vote came after a historical presentation to council and a number of speakers voicing their support for the motion.

"I'm very strongly in favour of this set of actions and acknowledge and apologize for the historical discrimination of Chinese people in Vancouver and the reprehensible actions of people here in leadership positions in Vancouver, that had tragic impacts on so many and continue to impact generations to today," said Mayor Gregor Robertson. 

Apology events will take place in April 2018. The apology will use the historic spoken Chinese dialect of Toishanese, but ensure written materials are translated into traditional and simplified Chinese.

The city will also push for a UNESCO heritage designation for Chinatown — though such a move, if effective, could take up to a decade to take effect. 

"At the municipal level, [racism] had a particular local effect on Chinese-Canadians," said Henry Yu, a UBC history professor and author of the report.

Historical legislation, policies and practices and other related archival material reflecting discrimination towards Chinese residents were compiled by the HDC based on historical records between 1886 and 1947.

"Many of those kinds of bylaws, I think Vancouverites and most Canadians don't know about."

Local laws enacted

In 2010, New Westminster became the first and only city in B.C. to make a formal apology for past discrimination. On May 15, 2014, Premier Christy Clark made an apology on behalf of the province, and in 2016, then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to those of Chinese descent.

Yu said during his research he came across numerous instances of racist bylaws. He gave the example of city work contracts prohibiting the employment of Chinese workers until after the Second World War. Yu said Rogers Sugar had one such contract. 

"One of the clauses says if you are supplying sugar to the City of Vancouver, you cannot hire Chinese people," Yu told The Early Edition.

"The owner of Rogers Sugar at the time actually disagreed with that and thought it was unfair, but he couldn't do anything about it."

UBC history professor Henry Yu helped write the Historical Discrimination Against Chinese People (HDC) advisory group report. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Yu said municipal laws differed from federal laws on many issues relating to Chinese residents. While Chinese residents were allowed to vote federally in 1947, they were denied voting municipally in Vancouver until 1949.

For roughly half of Vancouver's history, Yu said Chinese people weren't allowed to vote or get work from the city. They also faced segregation laws and discrimination in medical facilities. He added they were denied land zoning permits, fair access to housing and the use of public space. In some cases, they had land unjustly seized from them. 

More examples of past discrimination will be presented to city council.

"One of things that came out during that research ... is just how pervasive the racism against Chinese people was."

Advisory group recommendations

One of the report recommendations is to make the history of Chinese segregation and racism in Vancouver better known to people in the city. Yu said while racist laws were dismantled over time, there was also a push to erase the fact they ever existed.

Yu said the HDC advisory group isn't interested in playing the "blame game" and would like the city to acknowledge past discrimination. He said the formal apology would raise awareness of racism and celebrate the fact Vancouver now officially believes in equity, fairness, inclusiveness and integration.

"You only know how far we've come by acknowledging these kind of practices from the past," said Yu.

Yu, who was present at the 2014 provincial apology, said a formal apology would be a historical landmark and is eager to be present at another "important moment of reckoning."

With files from The Early Edition