The180·The 180

Canada's 'Yellow Peril': it happened before, it could happen again

The fear and persecution of immigrants from Asian countries is an ugly chapter in 20th century Canadian history. But author and teacher Christine Sismondo says it's an important chapter to remember, particularly in light of the border issues we face in 2017.
David Suzuki and two of his sisters in an internment camp in Slocan City in the British Columbia Interior, between 1942-1945. (National Archives of Canada)
Listen8:51

The fear and persecution of immigrants from Asian countries is an ugly chapter in 20th-Century Canadian history.

This form of xenophobia, known as the "Yellow Peril," was manifested in various ways, including the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, as well as the earlier head tax on Chinese people entering Canada between 1885 and 1923, in order to discourage Chinese people from coming to Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

But author and teacher Christine Sismondo says this dark era of Canada's history is important to remember — in light of current border issues in North America.

The following is a transcript of Christine Sismondo's conversation with The 180's Jim Brown.

For those who don't know — or have chosen to forget — tell us about the "Yellow Peril?" 

In Canada what we're looking at is almost immediately after the end of the construction of the railway there was this bubbling up of white mob violence against Asian immigrants, particularly on the west coast. 

And how much of that was influenced by what was going on south of the border?

That's an interesting point because I think that's what brings us to what we're looking at today, sort of a glimpse into our present day. In fact at the time they were called the anti-Oriental riots, and they were traced to Washington State and San Francisco also had similar riots in which South Asians and particular Chinese and Japanese citizens as well were terrorized and were being chased out of the work places. It was really a lot about labour and who got to take the good jobs.

Old photographs are displayed in the exhibition hall at Second World War-era Manzanar internment camp, in Manzanar, California. Manzanar tells the story of the over 110, 000 persons of Japanese ancestry, the majority of which were American citizens, who were forcibly detained at ten such camps in remote and desolate parts of the US between 1942 and 1945. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

So they were being chased out of workplaces in the States, and they started flowing north?

Yes, there was exactly that problem. There was a lumber yard in Washington State and there was a riot there and that was the south Asian community, many of them fled north across the border.

So that's the early 20th Century, and then it continued from there, based on pressure south of the border?

Yes, absolutely, because the first sort of Muslim-ban type of legislation that the United States ever put forward was aimed at Asians. So there was something like our Oriental Exclusion Act in the United States.

Canada didn't have such a thing, Canada just had strict immigration guidelines, and we had something called the head tax, and the story that the Americans were selling was that there were Asians immigrating through B.C., paying the head tax and then largely traveling across the country and crossing through Ontario or Quebec.

And how did Canada respond to that pressure from the States?

Well for a long time we held strong, and then we didn't. In 1923 we did our own Oriental Exclusion Act.

A cartoon encouraging the exclusion of Chinese immigrants appeared in the B.C. Saturday Sunset newspaper on August 24, 1907. (Vancouver Public Library)

So how do you see that history relating to today? 

Well so what I think is really interesting about it is that we tend to want to blame the United States when we have our own history. And I think that that's an important thing to keep in mind, which is that I think that we should be willing to face our own problems, because as we've seen in the United States, they don't really go away unless they're aggressively tackled. So I think that it's really important that we look at our own history of exclusion in order to be able to deal with what we're going to have to deal with over the next few years.

You see this as part of a bigger issue of Canadian exceptionalism?

Exactly. Because Canadians haven't really been known for their exceptionalism so much because Americans have had a stranglehold on that. American exceptionalism is quite well studied and well known and it's this idea of it being a "city upon the hill."

And now there are so many magazine articles from around the world that are talking about Canada as the new kind of "city upon the hill" and we're this wonderful accepting multicultural society in which we don't have prejudices and gender equality is almost here. And you don't really have to look very far beneath the surface to see that's not really true. Not only is it not true now, but we have a long history to draw upon.

Where are you seeing signs that concern you, that our self-belief doesn't hold water?

It just seems to me that immediately after Trump was elected we had an awful lot of people saying that could never happen here, we're just not so racist. I have a niece for example who is considering moving back from England after Brexit because she's concerned about the future of that country and she told me that she thought that she would come back to Canada because we're just not so racist here.

Now I don't think that that's correct, and I think that post Trump we've seen so many incidents: the Quebec mosque, more literature popping up on campuses, be it anti-Semitic or aimed at Asians, and we see this sort of stuff coming up and we're very surprised by it, but we actually have a long history of exactly that behaviour.

What if I was to argue that we have moved past that now, we've changed, we are less racist now?

I don't think that's wrong, I think that we may be, I just think we have to fight aggressively to keep that to be true. I think that for a large part, the dream of multiculturalism, which to some degree was started in the late '60s with Pierre Elliott Trudeau has really been beneficial to our country, and walking around downtown Toronto you certainly feel like this is a place where this sort of thing could not happen. But I think that's also true in Los Angeles or New York City or in a number of American urban centres, even smaller urban centres, and people are really surprised to see how it took hold of the country.

So I think that the point is that we just shouldn't relax and we need to be vigilant about this, and part of that vigilance involves — as the Alcoholics Anonymous people might say — an honest self-inventory. 

Are you seeing specific echoes today of those anti-Asian movements we saw in the past?

I think that there is anti-Asian literature being distributed in Richmond, B.C., so that's sort of one instance of that, but I think that the concern over foreign ownership of real estate in British Columbia has some echoes of that as well. And in addition I think that we should be really aware that the Muslim ban is really being written along similar lines of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and therefore it may not come up in the exact same format that it did before, but it's got similar overtones.

If we want to ensure we don't repeat those eras of history, how do we deal with things like immigration at our borders?

What I think is that we really have to keep in mind that we have obligations outside of those to the United States, that we have a free trade pact with Mexico for example, and that a lot of these things are going to be incredibly difficult to negotiate if the administration in the United States remains and continues its trade isolationist ideas and immigration bans. If that continues I think that our border will inevitably become problematic. There have already been conversations about us having a very porous border, and we're going to be perceived as an area of insecurity, and I just want everybody to keep the past in mind, and also keep our obligations to the rest of the world in mind. 

So to Canadians who, in the aftermath of the U.S. election, said "That could never happen here," how do you react to that?

Well I just think that's a little arrogant. I'm not saying that we're not different. I think that there's a good chance that we are, but I do think we're on thinner ice than we tend to think.

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