The Oriental Question–Part 2

“The Oriental Question” is the title of the second in a series of three books on Chinese and Japanese immigrants to Canada. It was written by Dr. Patricia Roy, retired Professor of History at the University of Victoria and published in 2003. The first book in the series was titled “A White Man’s Province”.

We have previously published a review of ” A White Man’s Province” as well as one of Part 1 of “The Oriental Question”. The first review is called “For Asian Heritage Month : A Review of ‘A White Man’s Province’ “. The second review is called “Past A Tipping Point, A Country’s Identity Changes”.



It should go without saying that academics such as historians have a responsibility to approach their research with as little bias as possible and to present their findings in as complete a form as possible. The same should be said about Canada’s media, particularly Canada’s publicly-funded CBC which, like other media, depend on the purity and accuracy of academic research in order to give credibility to their news reports.

However, as we have stated before, academics like UBC History Professor Henry Yu have demonstrated that they will use their positions to give authority to their biases, in his case, a contempt for the mainstream white population of Canada. Similarly, our CBC Radio in Vancouver has shown that on the immigration issue, it will use its authority in the news media to propagandize for the immigration industry and to deceive the public.

In researching The Oriental Question, Dr. Patricia Roy differs from Yu. She concedes that the white population of British Columbia initially had legitimate economic reasons for their hostility to Asians. However, she is in the group that concludes that, overall, the treatment that Asians received was unjustified.

Two questions have to be asked about her work: (1) Are she and others correct in their conclusions? The short answer we would give is no. (2) The second is this : What would have happened if 110 years ago, Canada had implemented current immigration policies? Our short answer is that the immigration-free-for-all that is rampant now would have occurred then instead of over the past 20 years.

Here are a few general comments :

Dr. Roy likes to portray efforts to establish “a white man’s province” as contemptible. She uses words like “atavistic” to describe the people who wanted to achieve this goal and she does not hesitate to play the race card. She has no sympathy for Canadians of that time who lived in a province which was in its early years of existence, These people wanted to remain racially similar to the rest of Canada and the UK. They feared being overwhelmed by potentially huge numbers of Asians. Their fear was real. Around 1900, Canada’s population was 5.3 million. China had about 400 million people. Japan had over 40 million. Both China and Japan had significant numbers of poor in their populations, in part because their populations had probably exceeded the carrying capacity of their countries. As a result, both had a large pool of labourers to export. Dr. Roy says that the Chinese and Japanese never formed more than 10% of B.C.’s population, so B.C. had no reason for its fear. But in saying that, she implies that if the number had been greater, complaints by whites and aboriginals would have been justified. Most Canadians would say that Canada has now gone far beyond that point. Almost 20% of its population is visible minority and it is predicted that the number will rise to over 30% by 2031, yet no one has heard Roy express any concern. On the contrary, she stands beside Henry Yu and others in cheerleading an ethnic transformation of Canada. And her work is cited by those wishing to promote the transformation. Yu believes the change has to occur because Canada dared to commit an “original sin”. Roy seems infatuated with victimization and the romance of immigration/ racial conflict. In fact, the covers of Roy’s two books say much about Roy’s bias: The inflammatory title “A White Man’s Province” has the letter “A” in bold white in the shape of a human and occupies half the cover, obviously trying to make connections between some B.C. politicians and the Ku Klux Klan. The cover of “The Oriental Question” features a photograph of 17 neatly-dressed Asian elementary school children, the 6 boys all in suits and the 17 girls all in white dresses. It is an obvious attempt to draw sympathy from readers and to appeal to reader emotions.

Ironically, Dr. Roy implies that she is an avowed rationalist. She heaps contempt on the B.C. population for their emotional responses, particularly their fears. However, she spends almost no time trying to explain one of the major reasons why whites in British Columbia of the early 1900’s complained about low-wage Asian labour. The reason is fairly straightforward. Following the example of contractors who had brought Chinese railway workers to Canada in the early 1880’s, Asian labour contractors, particularly Chinese, underbid white contractors in order to get contracts with employers. The Asian contractors then recruited workers in Asia and paid for their transportation costs from Asia to Canada. The Asian contractors held those labourers in a quasi-slave relationship until the labourers had paid off the debt incurred by their transportation. The contractors paid their Asian labourers wages that were significantly lower than wages paid to whites. In doing this, they were the ones who established the precedent of paying Asians less than whites. A Royal Commission conducted around 1901 looked into this and other issues. Its report included numerous complaints that the Chinese were virtual slaves to contractors. Deputy Labour Minister (and later Prime Minister) Mackenzie King’s investigation of the 1907 Vancouver Riot included evidence from Chinese labour contractors that they not only existed, but that they had profited greatly from their contracting and were some of the richest men in Chinatown, if not in all of B.C. Furthermore, rumours about Japanese labour contractors, who were secretly arranging to displace thousands of white CPR workers, were one of two major causes of the legendary Vancouver Riot of 1907. In other words, the labour contractor issue was a major issue, but Roy pays little attention to it.

In fact, King stated not only that white workers had a justifiable economic complaint, but that they had a sound cultural complaint also. That consisted of the sudden arrival in 1907 of close to 12,000 Japanese, East Indian and Chinese labourers in B.C. This inflow contributed to the frustration that many people already felt about Ottawa’s failure to get control of immigration numbers and the economic effects the numbers had. Those new arrivals, to quote King, caused “consternation” in the white population. The Vancouver Riot was unplanned. However, the parade before it through the streets of Vancouver was planned and over half of the population of Vancouver (around 60,000 at that time) marched to show their concern about the immigration issue. They may not have used the words “culturally overwhelmed”, to describe their case, but that is almost certainly what they meant. The Chinese, whose country had been colonized in the 1800’s, should have understood this concern. When the Chinese were being colonized, they, with justification, saw white foreigners exploiting China economically. They also saw their identity to be connected with race and they took measures to see that white foreigners were excluded and that colonization ended. Roy should have admitted the similarity, but she did not.

We have previously reviewed material from the first four parts of Roy’s book. Here are some of the interesting things Roy uncovers in the last five parts :

(1) From Chapter 4: The Male Minimum Wage act was passed in December, 1925. (This law was an effort to kill the wage advantage that Asian labour contractors provided to Chinese and Japanese labourers.) The law set the male minimum wage at 40 cents per hour and included all male labour except domestic and seasonal labour in industries such as fruit canning. It was first applied to lumbering which employed about 40,000 men (20% of the B.C. workforce). Regarding work in the professions, medicine and dentistry “admitted qualified Asians, presumably to practice among their own people”. Law and pharmacy did not. By 1919, the Japanese held 3267 fishing licences or about half of those issued, a significant number acquired by cheating. As a result of a reduction programme, the Japanese share of licences dropped to 16%. But the Supreme Court later ruled that it was illegal to base a reduction on race. Regarding work in agriculture: The Japanese were more likely to co-operate with whites in marketing farm crops than the Chinese who had established marketing groups within some families for some crops and sabotaged the efforts of whites and Japanese to market those crops. Most of Victoria’s Asian merchants were Chinese whereas, in Vancouver, except in green groceries, which were almost a Chinese monopoly, the Japanese were prominent. Roy concludes her comments on white complaints about Asian businesses by saying that “Asian merchants succeeded in large measure because of convenient service and lower operating costs that allowed them to offer lower prices.” That statement does not seem to fit with her other comments that Asian storekeepers violated bylaws which stated hours of operation, and that, to economize, many lived in their stores, in contrast to white storekeepers who lived in a different building.

(2) From Chapter 5 : Japan strictly honoured its 1928 “Gentleman’s Agreement” to issue no more than 150 passports per year to Japanese wanting to immigrate to Canada. Roy mentions labour contractors, but only briefly. She refers to “the bitter Fraser Mills Strike in 1931 in which both white and Japanese workers protested the ‘chattel slavery’ imposed by a Japanese labour contractor. She also mentions that “in 1935, the Shingle Weavers Union in Vancouver unionized the Chinese at one mill, and discontinued the ‘contract’ system, whereby the Chinese worked for substandard wages under the direction of a boss.” “The rarity of complaints about ‘cheap labour’ confirmed the claim of the provincial minister of labour that the Male Minimum Wage had ended the ‘obnoxious practice’ of lower wages for Asians.”

Both Chinese and Japanese received relief during the Depression, although the Chinese Benevolent Association did try to look after its own. “By 1935, the province and the city were also paying the fares of indigents who wished to return to China. In 1937, the provincial government boasted of having moved toward solving the ‘Oriental Problem’ by returning over a thousand Asians, mainly Chinese residents, to their homelands.” “Provincial officials suggested withdrawing the quota of Japanese immigrants stipulated in the ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ as long as some able-bodied Japanese residents remained unemployed…” In 1931, the legislature decided to enfranchise 80 Japanese veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (a World War I group) . The legislature approved this by one vote. CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth said that if Asians had the vote in Saskatchewan and Alberta, he did not see why they didn’t have it in B.C. This caused consternation within the CCF (the forerunner of Canada’s NDP). The Prince Rupert Evening Empire claimed that Woodsworth would invite “teeming millions” who would soon “run our country”. Roy makes fun of this statement. Woodsworth stated that it would have been better if Asians had never come, but “for our own sake. we must see that the Oriental in Canada is lifted to our status.”

(3) From Chapter 6: The post WWI years were positive for Japanese Canadians but Japan’s military actions in Asia undermined most Japanese-Canadian efforts to better their lot in Canada. Significant activity by numerous Japanese mining and forestry interests in B.C. increased suspicions that Japan wanted to make B.C. a colony. In 1936, officials of one of Japan’s largest canning companies visited B.C. with the idea of establishing deep-sea facilities to harvest B.C. salmon. This caused considerable alarm as well as calls for Ottawa to defend B.C.’s interests. Japan’s attacks on China through the 1930’s caused fear of the Japanese. The CCF accused Ottawa of helping the Japanese war effort by supplying Japan with resources. Ottawa (M. King) refused to do anything because of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1913. Concern continued to build. Japan took measures to severely restrict capital exports and to conserve its foreign exchange.It restricted imports to essential raw materials. A movement to place an embargo on materials exported to Japan (and probably used to manufacture Japanese war materials) started in other parts of Canada and spread to B.C. Freda Utley’s book “Japan’s Feet Of Clay” and her speeches did much to further the embargo. By 1939, few questioned the wisdom of an embargo.In this chapter and throughout Roy’s book, she states that the Japanese consul in B.C. intervened repeatedly on behalf of the Japanese in Canada, often thwarting in the courts and in diplomatic circles B.C.’s efforts to place restrictions on Japanese immigrants. Public concern arose after Japan threatened Hong Kong. After the formation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis in September, 1940, and an American embargo, support for a Canadian embargo increased. The export of Canadian raw materials to Japan was described as “the quickest way to Canada’s national suicide”. Canada continued to ship logs to Japan and even shipped wheat. News of the latter was suppressed, but eventually became public. News that the U.S. and U.K. had frozen Japanese assets and that they had terminated their Treaty of Commerce and Navigation gave Canada the precedents it seemed to need.

Calls for boycotts of Japanese imports paralleled the embargo campaign. The Canadian Japanese Association of Vancouver protested, saying that the boycott harmed members’ business and interfered with the promotion of international goodwill. The association’s publication of a pamphlet, explaining the Sino-Japanese conflict from Japan’s point of view, fueled suspicions that the Canadian Japanese were loyal to Japan”. Canadians took the side of the Chinese in the war between China and Japan. In general, the China-Japan war snuffed out hopes that Japanese-Canadians would gain more acceptance in Canada and aroused suspicions that they “might be loyal to their ancestral land and assist it in invading Canada”. Tota Ishimaru of the Imperial Japanese Navy wrote “Japan Must Fight Britain” in which he argued that the UK and Japan must collide because their interests were in conflict. Fears spread that Canada would not be able to defend itself, especially from attacks in B.C. from properties owned by Japanese interests. PM King announced measures to build defences on the west coast. Conflicting views about Japanese-Canadians were presented. Organizations like the RCMP saw no threat. Others like the B.C. Provincial Police and Assistant RCMP Commissioner recommended investigating the J. fishing fleet since most fishermen had received ‘naval training in their youth in the J. navy”. PM King was very suspicious of Japan and in November of 1941, he predicted war with Japan within one month. King expressed fears that war might cause anti-Japanese riots in B.C. coastal cities.

(4) From Chapter 7 : All major federal parties wanted to halt Japanese immigration. Many Easterners now shared B.C. views. Parliament debated both a quasi-Natal bill and a total Japanese immigrant exclusion bill. An interdepartmental committee of civil servants asked the Department of Labour to “investigate the success of Asians”. It recommended “the definite discontinuance of the admission of Orientals (Japanese) to Canada as immigrants”. “The committee proposed reciprocal agreements with China and Japan that would forbid Canadians to take up permanent residence there while prohibiting Chinese and Japanese nationals from taking up permanent residence in Canada.”

The Cabinet War Committee set up a group consisting of representatives from the Departments of National Defence and External Affairs as well as the RCMP to report on the general problem of the Chinese and Japanese in B.C., from the point of view of internal security, and with particular reference to military training. This group concluded that the problem resulted from the Japanese being “a rapidly growing and easily identified group” who offered strong competition in certain economic areas,” did not accept discrimination without protest,” and “above all” were seen as representatives of a nation whose ideals were seen as hostile to those of the Allies. The group found no evidence of “disloyal or subversive activity”. Japanese were required to carry ID cards indicating their status as Japanese nationals, naturalized Canadians, or Canadian-born citizens. The gov’t registered Germans and Italians also.

In a move indirectly aimed at the Japanese in Canada, B.C. Attorney General Wismer announced that after 15 September 1940, all British Columbians would be fined or imprisoned for possessing unregistered firearms. A federal interdepartmental committee had recommended as early as May, 1939 the interning of about 50 Japanese residents. ” ‘To secure full efficiency’, the Joint Service Committee recommended co-ordinating any action with the U.S. since inequality of treatment of the Japanese in the two nations could ‘furnish grounds for grievance by the persons immediately concerned’ “. (This seems to be an extremely important point, but Roy does not elaborate. She says her next book deals with this and other matters related to Asian immigration to Canada.)

Six weeks after the Joint Service Committee made its recommendations, Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. “Canada almost immediately declared war on the Japanese Empire, and within weeks British Columbians were clamouring for the removal of all Japanese residents from the province.”

(5) From CONCLUSION : Roy started her research with the question, “Why did Canada pass a Chinese exclusionary act in 1923?” She soon realized she had to ask a more searching question, “Why were white British Columbians so hostile to Asian immigrants?” Roy says that publicly B.C. Premier Richard McBride and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated that hostility was based on economic and social conditions. Privately, they said the causes were racial. She quotes a Japanese-Canadian group which said that the hostility was “economic jealousy tinged with colour prejudice”. Adding a racial twist was often used to disguise the special economic interest of a group. It was impossible to say, for example, that all labour organizations stood on one side because labour was divided on the Asian immigration issue. The same thing could be said of business. Farmers were also divided. So was the clergy. European culture gained in strength and identity by contrasting itself with the Orient. This did change after 1914, but sympathies for B.C. positions existed in the rest of Canada and helped to pass anti-Asian laws. Politicians sometimes led and sometimes reflected public opinion. B.C. did seek to enact its own immigration legislation, but it was overruled so many times by Ottawa that B.C. turned to trying to influence B.C. MP’s to work for exclusionary federal legislation. It urged Ottawa not to enter treaties which would restrict the country’s ability to limit immigration. It also recommended that by amending Canada’s constitution, Ottawa could restrict Asian land-holding. B.C. had many MLA’s involved in the immigration issue. Municipal politicians were also involved. Japan’s military actions caused fears of a Japanese attack on the B.C. coast and Ottawa’s precautionary response added to the fears.

One of the striking changes between 1914 and 1941 was the shift in attention from the Chinese to the Japanese. China’s government was weak and Ottawa did not listen to it. The most telling example of its weakness was the inability of China to do anything to prevent or reverse the exclusionary act of 1923. Japan’s government was strong and it demanded that Ottawa hear it directly or through UK pressure on Ottawa. In response to measures taken against both groups, neither was silent. As Japan increased its military actions, its influence decreased and sympathy for China increased. This difference demonstrated that “race” is largely socially constructed, that is, attitudes towards a group are often formed as a response to a specific incident. In the case of the Japanese, the attack on Pearl Harbour confirmed that the Japanese were treacherous. Within a very short time, a series of actions were taken against Japanese Canadians who were living on B.C.’s coast. The most dramatic was the eventual removal of all Japanese-Canadians from the B.C. coast. The reason was “to prevent riots that could that could lead Japan to exact revenge at the expense of Canadian and other British subjects under its control”.

At the end of WWII, Japanese-Canadians had the choice of moving east of the Rockies or of being re-patriated to Japan. After protests, re-patriation was dropped as an option. Most Japanese did not return to the coast because they had nothing to return to. Their houses, boats and other possessions had been sold, often at fire-sale prices by the federal government’s custodian of enemy property. The Chinese benefited from WWII. Chinese men were called up for military service in 1944. In 1947, Ottawa allowed wives and unmarried children of Chinese-Canadians to enter Canada. In 1947, both the federal and provincial governments gave the vote to Chinese-Canadians.