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Chinese and Whites in British Columbia from an Ethnocentric Perspective

Euro-Canadian (American, Swedish, Italian and Scottish) workers at a Canadian National Railway construction camp, BC, 1913

Official Interpretation

The official interpretation of the Canadian government on race relations between Whites and Chinese immigrants is summarily articulated in the Library and Archives of Canada, under the heading, ARCHIVED — The Early Chinese Canadians 1858-1947. The essential explanation this web page offers as to why Whites “were so hostile” to Chinese immigration is “anti-Chinese racism”. The document does not ignore other factors, such as the fear that “the Chinese could work for lower wages and would take jobs away from white workers”, but the message of the web page is that anti-Chinese agitation was centered “around the idea of ‘white supremacy’, captured best in the phrase ‘White Canada Forever'”.

This explanation is rarely challenged by anyone in Canada today. It is part of the mainstream curriculum, widely disseminated by all the media outlets. This explanation has provided the rationale for the apologies and financial compensations by the Federal government in 2006, and, most recently, the apology from the British Columbia Legislature in May 2014. It is also the explanation embraced by Chinese leaders in Canada in their still ongoing demands for “inclusive redress“.

The discursive apparatus sustaining this explanation is powerful, well-documented, and seemingly beyond dispute precisely because it is the only scholarly developed explanation today, and it is the only developed explanation because it is an integral component of Canadian elite efforts to create a nation in which the historic White majority population is obligated to accept a multiracial nation where the role of Whites as the founders of Canada will be marginalized. Once you accept this commitment to a multiracial culture, which by necessity implies believing that a White society dedicated to diversity is morally superior to a White society that is not, this explanation is inevitable.


The most comprehensive study of British Columbia’s effort to stop Chinese immigration is Patricia Roy’s three-volume series: A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914, The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province: 1914-41 and The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67. While this study offers great details on the economic factors that influence the attitudes of whites towards Asians, its central preoccupation is the “race” factor in the creation of this province, premised on the idea that race is a “socially constructed” category, which can be deconstructed by writing critical books about “white superiority” and “racism” as prejudices that can and should be transcended as we go about creating a Canada that is open to all races.

No racial group in human history other than Whites has ever been committed to racial diversity. The peoples of the earth have always exhibited ethnocentrism, preference for their own culture and a disposition to judge other cultures by the standards of their religion, customs, and ethnicity. But in the “imagined” future that our Canadians elites envision for Canada, a nation in which multiple races are projected to be able to get along without biases, ethnocentrism is seen as an “irrational fear” that only exists, and has existed, due to human ignorance, which can be remedied through proper education. This is the belief underpinning the official interpretation of race relations in Canada’s history. But there is a major dilemma in this way of thinking, and it is that a particular people, “white Canadians” — to use the official wording — are the only ones under the burden of overcoming their ethnocentric biases.

In the study of race relations in this nation, racial egalitarians cannot but be preoccupied with the dominant White group in its relations to minority out-groups since Whites have always constituted the vast majority in Canada. We thus have a situation in which early generations of Whites living in an extremely harsh environment, where a livelihood was hardly guaranteed, being subjected to the moral judgment of White liberal elites committed to racial equality living in comfortable settings made possible by past generations. The overplayed drama of “racism” is driven by well-off Whites condemning the actions of poor past Whites in the name of an imagined future free of ethnocentric favoritism. The non-Whites are always seen as the victims since Whites are the majority and only majorities can impose institutionalized racism.

The archived article, The Early Chinese Canadians, manifests this dilemma and blindness in almost every paragraph. There is never an effort to examine ethnocentrism as a human attribute partaking in all cultures. The only group standing in the court of judgment are Whites. Among many similar expressions we have: “White British Columbians firmly believed that their way of life was better than all others.” “They said that Chinese people carried diseases and other bad habits.” “Anti-Chinese racism reflected a belief in the superior power of the British Empire.” “In daily life, white Canadians felt free to show their dislike of Chinese people without any concern for the consequences.”

Why were Whites so malicious? No reasons are offered. One is simply left with the impression that humans are not naturally ethnocentric, but would prefer a universal communion of all races if not for the racist Whites standing in the way. The preference Whites had for their own group is portrayed as a historical anomaly; a mistake to be overcome in the world once we get all Whites to accept diversity. White racial acts are based on irrational fears. Other groups consist of normal humans beings eager to assimilate into a diverse Canada free of racial divisions.

Chinese Cheap Labor versus the White Native Workers

But when one examines the sources critically regrading the relationship between European settlers and Asian immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th century, one can detect the inherent flaws of this official interpretation. We can start by showing that in the most developed explanation of racism against the Chinese, namely the work of Patricia Roy, there are a number of implicit observations pointing towards a different, more realistic and scientific interpretation, of the events.

Obviously I can only offer a glimpse of what would constitute a new way of looking at Canada’s race relations from the perspective that we are all ethnocentric. For this purpose the “Introduction” to the second volume of Roy’s book, The Oriental Question, is quite useful. Right away, in acknowledging the role of economic competition, she says that “fear” of Asians, of being “swamped” by an inflow of Asians, was connected to the fact that Asians were competing against whites for jobs “in the fishing grounds, in the fields, in the market place, in the classroom”. Citing her own words from the first volume, A White Man’s Province, Roy adds that this competition was serious enough to “warrant deep fears about the ability of white British to maintain their dominant position in the province.”1 Now, of course, Roy, is trying to bring attention to the role of economic competition, but what is important is that she is implicitly admitting that white “fears” about the Asians as a race were not irrational since fear of out-groups is always connected to competition for resources, which is more accentuated when resources and opportunities are scarce. In other words, what Roy says could be fitted within an interpretation that fully recognizes the reality of in-group ethnic bias, rather than assuming, as she does, that ethnicity is merely a “socially constructed” identity based on “erroneous” assumptions about the existence of different racial groups.2

Roy observes that during the years between 1914 and 1941, with the passing of the exclusionary Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, the fear about Asian “swamping” declined, and whites were able to consolidate “their white man’s province”. Excluding Asians, and episodic reactions against Japanese residents, serve as a way for whites to acquire their own identity; that is, the formation of BC as a viable province with its own culture and people entailed use of the Asian “other” as “part of their [white] self-definitions”.3 Again, there is very little to work on here, but if we don’t accept her premises, we can ask: has there ever been any other identity in human history that was not formed by identifying an “other”? Can a community be created in which everyone belongs and no one is excluded? Roy, and everyone who writes about the making of Canada’s provinces, takes it for granted that we can have a universal inside-ness freed from any taint of xenophobia and in group-favoritism.

Putnam and the Impoverishment of Diversity

There is no denying that Western nations alone have been committed to a universal community because of their unique development of a wider sense of the “we”, not only in nurturing a scientific method with universal applicability, but in coming up with a model of political belonging based on equal rights of citizenship regardless of race and religious identities. However, first, it should be noted that Western nations developed the concept of civic citizenship within the context of a high degree of ethnic homogeneity, in countries where ancestors had lived for generations. The most liberal nations — England, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark — were indeed the ones with the strongest liberal traits, constitutions and institutions. Second, what has been transpiring in the last few decades with the promotion of mass immigration and race mixing is unprecedented, and purely experimental in nature. The results we have so far may be ascertained from the most detailed study we have of the way different ethnic communities are interacting and belonging in the West: a comprehensive survey by Robert D. Putnam of 26,200 people in 40 American communities, the conclusion of which was that ethnic diversity decreases trust and co-operation in communities.

Putnam observes that in mixed ethnic communities people tend to “withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to vote less […] and to huddle unhappily in front of the television”. Known for his bestseller, Bowling Alone (2000), Putnam also noted that “across local areas in the United States, Australia, Sweden, Canada and Britain, greater ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust and, at least in some cases, lower investment in public goods.”

Vancouver 2031: Whites only two out of five Residents

In light of this study (and there are many other studies showing that to this date white and blacks in the United States have not created a community with a sense of “we”, and that Canada still has a marginalized native population), should we categorized past whites in BC as “irrational” in their insistence that Asians were not capable of assimilation? Were they altogether wrong in fearing that, if the borders were not regulated, they would be “swamped” by Asian immigrants? Well, as Douglas Todd, of the Vancouver Sun (April 1, 2013), has recently reported:

After being an overwhelming majority in Metro Vancouver up until the 1980s, whites will make up only two out of five residents by the year 2031, according to projections done for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

On the question of assimilation, Todd further notes:

University of British Columbia geographer Daniel Hiebert also predicts that ethnic groups in Metro will increasingly concentrate in neighbourhood enclaves, creating a degree of racial segregation paralleled only by blacks and whites in major U.S. cities.

Similar trends are predicted for Canada’s other major cities; for example, “Metro Toronto’s visible minority population will mushroom by 3.3 million, with whites accounting for just 37 per cent of its residents by 2031.” According to Hiebert, the “scale of ethnographic change over (the next) period will be larger and more rapid than anything we have seen previously.” The entire region of Richmond adjacent to Vancouver centre has been so overwhelmed by Chinese immigrants that it now resembles a huge Chinatown with Chinese only signs.

Past whites assessed and forewarned us about the dangers of Asian swamping. Current whites offer us delusional dreams about racial assimilation and togetherness on the supposition that whites are the only ethnic groups capable of racism. It does not occur to them that the racism of non-Whites may be far cruder since they lack any notion of civic citizenship and a universal “we”. Roy’s work is all about white racism, of course, but in a sentence about the “leading anti-Asian agitators” among different white ethnics, she slips the following: “the Aboriginals lacked the franchise but when they came into contact with Asians, mainly Japanese fisherman, their views were similar to those of their white counterparts.”4

Imagine if academics were as obsessed writing about non-white racism as about white racism?

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