Chinese Canadians and the fight for civil rights in British Columbia

Young Conservatives for Jung (Douglas Jung second from the left). © Vancouver Public Library / 41618B, 1958
For the Week of Monday, April 25, 2022

On 29 April 1898, The Globe newspaper in Toronto reported on debates in the House of Commons about who should or should not be eligible to vote. British Columbia had been one of the first provinces to define eligibility in part on the basis of race, taking away the voting rights of Chinese Canadians in 1872. This was just one example of the many laws in Canada that severely limited the rights and freedoms of Chinese people at the time. The Chinese community responded by forming organizations that protested racist legislation and advocated for full citizenship.

Chinese immigration to British Columbia began in the 1850s, but declined significantly following the introduction of a punitive head tax in 1885 and the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act on July 1, 1923 (known as “Humiliation Day” within the Chinese community). The latter effectively closed the door to almost all Chinese immigrants and required all residents of Chinese descent in Canada to register for an identity card. Such racist policies resulted in family separation, with many Chinese men unable to sponsor the immigration of family members, including their wives and children.

Community-based organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Victoria (founded in 1884) and the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (founded in 1896) assumed greater importance as a result, fostering social connections, providing financial aid and health services, creating opportunities for recreation, and supporting individuals experiencing unemployment. The need was particularly acute during the Great Depression, as Chinese residents experienced higher rates of joblessness than others in British Columbia.

When the Second World War began, there was considerable debate amongst Chinese Canadians about whether or not to enlist in the armed forces, as this would mean fighting for a country that did not recognize their civil rights. In the end, approximately 600 men and women of Chinese descent served in uniform, including Douglas Jung. Born in Victoria in 1924, Jung was among the approximately 150 Chinese Canadians to serve in Force 136, which undertook covert operations in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia for the British Special Operations Executive. The service, sacrifices, and advocacy of Chinese Canadian veterans helped pressure the federal government to repeal the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947. The province of British Columbia soon after extended the right to vote to Chinese Canadians and, in 1948, the federal government repealed sections of the 1920 Dominion Elections Act that had denied members of racialized communities the right to vote, if they had been excluded from the franchise by the provinces. In 1957, Jung became the first person of Chinese descent in Canadian history to be elected to the House of Commons, representing Vancouver Centre.

However, there was still more work to do. As president of the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver from 1948 to 1959, Wong Foon Sien (Wong Mun Poo) continued to advocate for the rights of Chinese Canadians in the years that followed. He and other Chinese Canadian political advocates like Velma Chen played an important role, for example, in campaigns for the right to vote in provincial and municipal elections, and for a more liberal immigration policy that would make family reunification possible for more Chinese Canadians.

Wong Foon Sien (centre) accepting an award for his contributions to the Chinese Benevolent Association in 1952. © Vancouver Public Library / William Cunningham / 60589, 1952
Wong Foon Sien was designated as a national historic person in 2008. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

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Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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