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'I am proud to be Chinese Canadian': Student explores Canada's exclusionary immigration history

Samantha Yee, a Gr. 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, explains why she was most interested in the new Canadian History Hall's section on immigration and how it directed related to her family’s immigration to Canada.
The Canadian government imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in 1885 after Chinese workers were no longer needed to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. (CBC)

During Cross Country Checkup's live broadcast from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., the show got feedback from high school students on various exhibits featured in the museum's new Canadian History Hall, which opens next week on July 1st. 

Samantha Yee, a Grade 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, was particularly interested in the exhibit's section on immigration, and how it directly related to her family's history in Canada. Yee spoke with Checkup host Duncan McCue about it.

Listen to their conversation below: 

Samantha Yee, a Gr. 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, explains why she was most interested in the new Canadian History Hall's section on immigration and how it directed related to her family’s immigration to Canada. 4:25

Duncan McCue: I want to go back to some of our eager history students who are here. Samantha Yee is a Grade 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate and Samantha was particularly interested in the section of the museum on immigration. What was it that struck you about that? 

Samantha Yee: History, I find, is a lot more meaningful when it's personal. My story in Canada started with Chinese immigrants coming during the 1950s. When I came to the Canadian History Hall a couple of weeks ago, the first two sections of the Hall were mostly on indigenous culture, French and English colonization, and there was a small section on the CPR—the Canadian Pacific Railway. All I saw was small paragraph saying Chinese people helped out with the building of this railroad. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't so much of a voice for Asian immigrants, which is really important to me and my family. Coming here today, I was able to see the third section of the Hall and that was absolutely, by far, my favourite section of the three. 

DM: What stuck out for you in that third section about Asian history?

SY: There is a part where there were immigration certificates and they talked about the Chinese head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration act that happened decades ago. I saw that and I just thought, "Wow. That is something that people in my family would have gone through." That's something that I am inspired to talk to my grandparents about and ask them, "What was it like? Do you have any of these documents I could look at? Tell me more about your experience."

DM: What do you imagine it was like for them?

SY: Honestly I don't think I can imagine it. It must have been so hard. After the Second World War, my whole family was in search for a better life. They came here and started off as dishwashers and waiters, and they ended up growing into this amazing family and they had restaurants. It is really something that can show all Canadians that you can start off with barely anything and grow to be really this amazing part of Canadian history and be part of this community that's so welcoming to all cultures. 

DM: In that portion of the exhibit one of the things that stood out to me was an editorial cartoon that talks about white immigration and then Oriental immigration and it starkly illustrates the exclusion of Asian immigrants. When you saw that what went through your head? 

SY: Thinking back on it now, it's a bit saddening. But it seems a little ridiculous, too. There was even a quote that says that Asian immigrants will never have a place in Canada and it's something someone said in 1914, and now Asian immigrants make up a very large part of Canada. This is a story that so many people in Canada can relate to.

I feel that when you see these parts of Canadian history that if you were living in that time would make you feel very unwelcome. Right now, I feel I'm so much more accepted in this country and my culture is so much more accepted. I am proud to be Chinese Canadian, but before that, I'm Canadian—I was born here. Everyone here makes you feel like you're Canadian. They don't necessarily single you out for your background.

Samantha Yee and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Champagne Choquer on June 25, 2017. 

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