For Asian Heritage Month: A Review Of "A White Man’s Province"


“A White Man's Province “, published 20 years ago by Patricia Roy, now-retired Professor of History at the University of Victoria, is a fascinating account of Chinese and Japanese immigration to Canada between the years 1858 and 1914. Readers will see a great similarity between immigration concerns of the 19th Century and today. However, potential readers should be alerted that the book has a strong bias against cultural and economic limits to immigration.

We present this review for May (designated since 2002 as “Asian Heritage Month”) as a contrast to the standard immigration industry material that is aired at this time.

In general, Professor Roy's thesis is that British Columbians' complaints against the Chinese (who started coming to B.C. in 1858) and against the Japanese (who started arriving in earnest in the 1890's) were primarily economic. But as time went on, she argues, the complaints became primarily race-based. With some justification, she is vague about exactly when the change occurred. She implies that it happened in the early 20th century.

When Professor Roy says the complaints were economic, she means that white workers regarded Chinese and Japanese labourers as competitors for scarce jobs and threats to their economic security. Because the Chinese and Japanese came from countries with very low standards of living and with low rates of pay, employers hired them in order to reduce their payrolls. It is assumed that they also did so to keep other workers' wages low. According to white workers, the Chinese and Japanese gradually drove higher-wage white workers out of entire job categories. According to some business people, they did the same in some businesses.

The change from an economic to a race issue is a major point because, if even biased scholars such as Professor Roy concede that the innumerable complaints against the Chinese and Japanese were at any time primarily economic and therefore reasonably justified, then they also have to concede that measures taken to redress the harm (caused by Asian low-wage labour) were justified. And (a) since Professor Roy is vague about the time when the economic reason ended and (b) since the last head tax could easily have happened before the economic reason concluded, she has to concede that all three head taxes on the Chinese were very likely legitimate harm-reduction. Similarly, measures to redress the negative effects of Japanese immigration (by limiting the numbers of Japanese immigrants) rose in the late 19th century and therefore could also fall within the time of the economic argument. Therefore, these measures were also legitimate harm-reduction.

To put the matter in perspective, British Columbians of the late 19th and early 20th century B.C., whom she has limited sympathy for, had to deal with basic knife and fork issues. Professor Roy should have imagined herself in a similar situation and dealt with the same issues. For example, how would she have felt if labour market conditions, like the rampant Chinese underbidding on labour contracts in the early Chinese and Japanese immigrant era, had prevailed in her career? How would she have reacted if someone had underbid on her job (offered to teach for half her wage) and if the university had accepted the offer?

On the issue of whether the Chinese and Japanese were the only ones to receive societal disapproval because they accepted low wages, she notes very importantly that the Salvation Army and others tried to bring destitute Britons to B.C. However, British Columbians objected to this move. The reason is not clear but it probably had something to do with the potential effect of bringing large numbers of job seekers (and a subsequent low-wage environment) into the job market. This is a very important point. She also notes that there was general disapproval of other Europeans who would accept low wages. She even notes that Alien Labour Act legislation of 1897-1899 was aimed at American gold seekers (as much as Asians) who came to Canada to acquire quick wealth and then return to their countries. In other words, she concedes that the Chinese and Japanese were not the only ones to be targeted. To sum up, British Columbians disapproved of the plundering of their resources by outsiders and the flooding of their labour market and tried to restrict the actions of the guilty, regardless of skin colour.

On the issue of labour analysis of that time, Professor Roy belongs to the school which says that immigrants take the jobs that others don't want. In the period she describes, she implies that the Chinese and Japanese did work that whites would not do. She does not admit that these people caused white workers to be displaced from their jobs—even though the Royal Commission of 1901 contains testimony that says this happened. She even accepts the employer idea that paying low wages to the Chinese and Japanese allowed employers to pay higher wages to whites. It would have been helpful if Professor Roy had checked more carefully the 1901 Royal Commission comments on displacement of workers. It would also have helped if she had done some careful labour analysis to determine what constituted a living wage at that time. Finally, she could have researched whether the presence of the low wage Chinese and Japanese (and their contractors who firmly established the low pay pattern) caused wage-suppression and wage-stagnation to everyone.

On the cultural implications of immigration, Professor Roy seems to belong to the open-door school which says that anyone who wants to come to Canada should be allowed to come. To her, those who set up barriers suffer from some social disease. For example, in her view, white British Columbians who erected barriers to the Chinese suffered from an infirmity called “sinophobia”. Her choice of her book's title is a clear indication of her open-door bias. It is true that British Columbians did use the phrase “A White Man's Province” extensively but, as she concedes, it was a catch phrase for many things besides skin colour. Most importantly, as Professor Roy states, the people of the time used it to express a major cultural concern: British Columbia should remain within its historical (British and French traditions) and it had no interest in becoming something else. To them, if Canada had accepted unlimited numbers of Chinese and Japanese whose countries' populations in 1900 was around 450 million, Canada's 5 million would have been culturally overwhelmed. (If India's 234 million had been added to the picture, the threat would have been even greater.) Professor Roy might want to ask herself if she subscribes to the contrasting views of high immigration advocates today who suggest that this country should take unlimited numbers and that those numbers are not a cultural threat. She is aware that her views are being used by colleagues whose work is more devoted to raising the population levels of their own ethnic groups than to true academic pursuit.

To continue on the topic of a cultural threat, Professor Roy looks at the 1907 Vancouver Riot and concedes (as Mackenzie King did in 1907) that an inflow of around 12,000 Asians in the first 8 months of that year caused the 60,000 people of Vancouver to fear that they were going to be overwhelmed. (As she correctly notes, it was later revealed that a number of the Japanese arrivals were really on their way to the U.S.) To illustrate British Columbia cultural attitudes, at different points in her book she quotes British Columbians commenting on immigration. One B.C. MLA had observed: “Are we to be a British province or an annex of oriental kingdoms? Another British Columbian said that if Chinese immigration were to continue, the name “British Columbia” would have to be changed to “Chinese Columbia”. Since the 12,000 newly-arrived Asians represented about 20% of the total Vancouver population in 1907, was the alarm about being flooded legitimate? In other words, is the riot which is today regarded by the politically-correct as an unjustified race-based event, a very understandable cultural reaction? In addition, when one considers that the province repeatedly asked for an end to the cheap Asian labour issue, but that the federal government ignored provincial complaints and disallowed provincial legislation enacted to curb Asian immigration, is the frustration (as demonstrated by the riot) even more understandable?

Professor Roy points out that the Japanese and Chinese immigration issues were very different matters. Japan had become a world power and was an important ally (through the Anglo-Japanese Treaty) of the UK. This complicated Japan's immigration relations with Canada, as well as with the UK which administered Canada's foreign affairs until 1931. Japan even meddled in Canadian politics, frequently complaining about the treatment of its temporary workers/immigrants to Canada and, in the view of many, deciding Canada's immigration policy. Yet Japan also officially acknowledged that its workers could cause problems for Canadian workers, that Canadians were justified in complaining, and that Japan should do something about the complaints. At the turn of the 20th century, Japan did that by stopping the emigration of its labourers to both Canada and the U.S. In contrast, China's chaotic, weak condition and its corrupt government made It much more difficult to deal with.

Ironically, Professor Roy provides the best examples of displacement, particularly large scale, when she describes the effects of Japanese immigration. For example, in order to get commercial fishing licences, the Japanese had to become British citizens. They could do this by remaining in B.C for 3 years and swearing to a B.C. notary that they had been here. The problem was that many Japanese were seasonal labourers who went back to Japan for the winter and thus did not satisfy the residence requirement. However, with the collusion of two notaries, the Japanese fishermen swore they had been here for the required time, became naturalized and were granted fishing licences. By using this fraud, Japanese fishermen eventually owned 1659 (45%) of the 3683 gill net licences by 1900. To whites and Native Indians, the result showed how aggressive outsiders could quickly become the masters of an industry.

As Professor Roy says, the Japanese soon used their numbers against white and Native fishermen. In 1900 and 1901, Japanese fishermen on the Fraser River near Vancouver made agreements with white and Native fishermen to strike for better prices for fish. However, when the strike seemed not to produce the required results, the Japanese deserted their partners and went back to work. Since the Japanese comprised such a large percentage of the fishermen, their actions broke the strikes.

A Japanese “clever trick” (the words of Masako Iino) followed. In 1907, Japanese labour contractors in Vancouver secretly arranged to bring several thousand Japanese labourers to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway and for the Dunsmuir family's coal mines. The large number of workers involved meant that the imported Japanese labourers would probably displace a significant number of the CPR's 5000 western division employees from their jobs. The same thing would probably happen to employees of the Dunsmuir family which had already profited greatly by employing Chinese in their coal mines. To say the least, these schemes did not improve the reputations of the CPR and the Dunsmuirs. Neither did they improve attitudes towards the Japanese and other low-wage Asian labour. In fact, this evidence (uncovered by Canada's Deputy Minister of Labour in 1907) was some of the most damning proof that the complaints of the host population in B.C. against Asian labour (a) were about the economic issue, (b) were clearly legitimate, and (c) demanded attention.

Much more could be said, particularly about the significance of provincial and municipal involvement in the immigration issue at that time, a phenomenon virtually unseen today–as well as about the independence of the media at that time versus “the herd of independent thinkers” mentality so prevalent today.

But let us go to the end of Professor Roy's book. In the Epilogue, she states that ” 'A White Man's Province' became a common rallying cry for a province that was “immature”. Strange word to use.

If the word “immature” means having a vision of the future and having the courage to stand up; and if the word “mature” means having no vision and no courage, then maybe it is time for British Columbia and for all of Canada to become “immature”.


Professor Roy has written a sequel to “A White Man's Province”. The sequel is titled “The Oriental Question”.