Do public apologies reveal our history, or obscure it?

When the City of New Westminster apologized to Chinese Canadians in September, they became the first municipality in British Columbia to formally acknowledge a history of discrimination against the Chinese community.

Mayor Wayne Wright delivered the apology before a crowd of Chinese seniors, many of whom experienced firsthand such racist legislation as the Exclusion Act and the ban against their right to vote. In an emotional display, the seniors stood and applauded the speech.

“It’s a major step towards reconciliation,” said Bill Chu, founder of the Canadians for Reconciliation, who initiated the process in a letter to the city last year demanding they research past treatment of the Chinese community. “In 2010, it’s time for us to embrace a more equal and complete history.”

The city researched the period of 1860 to 1926 and determined that New Westminster had discriminated against the Chinese community. Among the city’s offences were passing anti-Chinese labour laws, demolishing buildings in Chinatown based on questionable safety violations and even banning Chinese New Year.

Yet despite the glowing media response and reaction by many members of the Chinese community, Sid Tan, head of the BC chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, has refused to acknowledge the apology.
Tan says the City of New Westminster failed to do adequate research, delivered the speech in the wrong language and undermined an existing redress campaign seeking compensation for descendants of head tax payers.

“They pandered for the vote, took the photo ops and left the hard work undone. If you look at the research they did, it’s obvious. If you can’t do the job properly, don’t do it at all.”

The politics of public apologies are a tangled affair, in which saying “I’m sorry” often means much more than a simple gesture. The apology by Stephen Harper to survivors of the head tax in 2006 was met with similar scepticism of his motives.

“What purpose does a public apology serve?” Tan said. “Ask yourself: who is this apology for?”
Why New Westminster?

In 2009, plans to demolish and rebuild New Westminster’s high school were halted when it was revealed that the building had been constructed atop a Chinese cemetery. Bill Chu then prompted the city to examine their history with the Chinese community, also citing the “disrespectful” use of a Chinese Benevolent Association site as a dog park.

The city completed its research over an eight-month period in two phases. The first phase consisted of an intensive review of council meeting minutes and English-language media reports for the period of 1860 to 1926. The second phase entailed a consultation with the Chinese community, including consultations with four Chinese-Canadian advocacy groups and a feedback form that was filled out by 46 community members.
The research findings were published in March and June of 2010, detailing an extensive history of racist legislation. The first report includes 75 pages of excerpts from meeting minutes and newspaper headlines. For example, from a meeting of council held January 26, 1880:

From the Anti-Chinese Association asking the Council to sign a petition restricting immigration of Chinamen. Laid over until next meeting. Moved by Councillor French, Seconded by Councillor Hoy: That all contractors for public works be strictly bound not to employ Chinese labour. Carried.

In one particularly egregious instance, Chinese were denied entry to the city’s major hospital. When the Chinese community decided to fund their own hospital, petitions were sent to government to attempt to stop it from being built.

The racist sentiments only worsened over time, culminating in the Exclusion Act of 1923, a national measure that essentially banned Chinese immigration. New Westminster’s contribution to and support of this Act is obvious from this excerpt from a meeting held March 19, 1923:

In view of the ever increasing number of Asiatics thrusting themselves into our midst seriously demoralizing the economic situation, we request the Federal Parliament, by wire, to make enquiry into this national menace… [We] urge upon the Government the necessity of legislation during the present session debarring Asiatics from British Columbia.

“I would hate to try and justify it by saying New Westminster was just like any other Canadian city, but unfortunately, that may be true,” said John Stark, Senior Social Planner for the city.

“I think the apology is consistent with what New Westminster has been up to lately. We are a progressive city and the apology was more than just a symbolic step.” The city plans to construct a memorial at the former cemetery site and is presently exploring other ways to celebrate Chinese culture in New Westminster.  

What is missing?

“I went to the city, twice, to tell them not to deliver the speech in Mandarin. They didn’t listen,” said Sid Tan. “Mandarin only became prominent in 1989. Who is affected by the legislation who speaks Mandarin? No one.”

According to Tan, the apology should have been spoken in Cantonese, the mother tongue of anyone old enough to have been affected by the city’s discriminatory actions. “The fact that they went ahead and delivered it in Mandarin speaks volumes about their aims.”

Tan compared the apology to Brian Mulroney’s 1988 address to the victims of Japanese internment camps. “Mulroney would not have apologized without the rise of Japanese power in the ‘80s ... Now, the government is playing more to overseas China.

Stephen Harper was the first to apologize to Chinese Canadians for the head tax in 2006. Yet he issued two more apologies in 2008: one to First Nations for residential schools, and the other to Indian-Canadians for the Komagata Maru incident.

John Stark defended the city’s decision to use Mandarin, stating that their legislative team instructed that it was the official language of China. “We would have liked to do both [Mandarin and Cantonese], but with the length of time allotted, we went with the official language,” he said.

Further, the City of New Westminster is open about the economic benefits associated with apologizing. A report published June 28, 2010 stated, “There are many potential social and economic benefits to the City resulting from the Chinese Reconciliation Process. These benefits include ... stronger economic ties, which could assist the City in securing contracts with Chinese companies and in appealing to Chinese tourists.”
Mayor Wright took offence to the accusation of political manoeuvring. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Wright said, “You can’t buy integrity and you can’t buy an apology that isn’t sincere. What this should do is bring us closer to the Chinese community.”

Another issue raised by Tan and the Chinese Canadian National Council is the extent of the research completed by the city. “If all you’re going to do is apologize until 1926, do it before history,” Tan said.
The Exclusion Act continued until 1928, and Chinese-Canadians did not get the vote until 1948. Some barriers to immigration, including the requirement that all immigrants speak English, existed until 1967.
The choice of 1926 was less of a symbolic choice and more of a necessity due to limited resources and time, Stark said. “We researched up until 1926 and decided we had enough information to move forward with an apology.”

He also addressed the issue of the city’s sole consultation of English-language newspapers, when Chinese media were published at the time. “The research will be completed. We will consult Chinese-language newspapers, so it’s a more rounded account.”

What about the head tax?

Both Sid Tan and Bill Chu were consulted during the second phase of the research process. But Tan claims that the Canadians for Reconciliation utimately garnered an apology that diverted attention away from the real goals of the reconciliation movement.

Approximately 3,000 to 4,000 descendants of head tax payers are seeking compensation denied to them by Stephen Harper’s apology package in 2006. Compensation was only provided to living payers of the head tax and their spouses, not their children or siblings. The New Westminster apology not only fails to take into account the full time period of the Exclusion Act, but also does not involve monetary compensation.

According to Chu, money is not the point of reconciliation. “One can’t say, ‘Okay, give me 10,000 dollars, and then it will all be better.’ That doesn’t eliminate the basis of one’s prejudice or one’s discrimination. There would be no peace in our society … we must first deal with the truth.”

One respondent to the city’s Chinese feedback form wrote, “The City should stay away from monetary compensation to individuals who may be descendants of past discrimination… the process is complex and does not necessarily contribute to grassroots reconciliation.”

Most respondents seemed to advocate using city funds to enrich the community, such as incorporating Chinese-Canadian history into public school lesson plans and creating learning modules for children about Chinese-Canadian culture at the library.

Yet the New Westminster apology “takes the movement off course,” said Tan, referring to the failure of the Canadian government to redress the survivors of the head tax in full. “How can you have reconciliation without truth?”

Ho Ho Sheung, the son of a head tax payer, described the economic strain his father’s debt placed on his family. “He had to borrow some money [in Hong Kong] and collect $500 … With meagre earnings how do you expect to earn $500? It probably took three or four years to pay it back. We had to be very thrifty for all those years."

Sheung’s story was told in an Access TV spot broadcast by the Chinese Canadian National Council. Like most descendants of head tax payers, Sheung remained in China while his father worked in Canada to pay off the head tax. Families were separated as parents couldn’t afford to pay for their children to move. 

Seeking a complete understanding of BC history

For Bill Chu, the reconciliation process is not only about revealing the negative aspects of Chinese-Canadian discrimination, but recognizing the positive contributions of a community that have been left out of official accounts of history.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in B.C. in 1858 and worked alongside European settlers on the Fraser Canyon during the gold rush. The 1881 census showed that 20 per cent of the non-aboriginal population in B.C. was Chinese.

“This is a piece of history that has been suppressed in order to portray the province as a white province,” said Chu. “The result of this false history was to tell Chinese that we are strangers, aliens in our own home. It creates an assumption that one portion of the population are host, the other guest.”

The most dangerous and complicated portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in BC was completed by Chinese labourers who were paid about $1 a day. There is no known estimate of the number of Chinese workers killed while working on the railway, because no records were kept and their family members were not notified when they died. 

Dr. Chris Lee, UBC English professor specializing in Asian-Canadian studies, said, “Apologies such as this one are important because they draw attention to historical injustices that have been erased from public memory.” 

The ongoing redress campaigns should benefit from the apology, as it raises awareness of their cause, Lee said.

“The continued vigilance of the activists who won the recent apology… will be crucial in ensuring that their efforts will not be co-opted by political interests more interested in achieving a premature sense of closure and resolution.” 

Both the Canadians for Reconciliation and the Chinese Canadian National Council are in agreement that the BC government is still indebted to its Chinese community.

“B.C. has the worst history of racism against Chinese of all the provinces. They must graciously accept what they have done,” said Chu.
“To build a better Canada, to build a better B.C., we must acknowledge our history.”

//Laura Kane

//Illustrations by Lydia Fu

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