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Chinese Immigration to Alberta

Dragon dance at the Chinese Pavilion

The first Chinese family to come to Canada arrived in 1860. After that, many more Chinese immigrated to Canada, most of them men from poor families in rural China who came to escape poverty. At that time, it took 35 days to travel from Hong Kong to Victoria. The immigrant had to pay for his boat trip as well as for food provisions, which usually consisted of rice, dried fish, and preserved cabbage. Once in Canada, Chinese immigrants found work with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Because they were obviously foreigners, they got the hardest and most dangerous jobs. More than 600 Chinese were killed in the construction of the railway.

Chinese section men on handcars

The Chinese have played an important role in the development of Alberta, in part because of their contributions to the building of a railway that would link the province to the rest of Canada. Upon the completion of the railway in 1885, the Chinese workers lost their jobs. With Chinese labour no longer needed, the Canadian government began charging a head tax for every Chinese immigrant coming to Canada. By 1903, the head tax was $500.00. Many of the now unemployed workers came to Alberta where they settled primarily in the cities and towns, congregating in areas known as Chinatowns.

Discrimination against the Chinese was strong during the early 1900s. Many could not find jobs or, if they could, they were paid much less than a non-Chinese person doing the same job. As a result, many Chinese people started to open restaurants, laundries, or market gardens. These Chinese people could be self-employed and did not have to be in competition with other people. Because of Canada's harsh immigration laws, it was difficult for Chinese men’s wives and children to come to Canada to join them. In 1921, there were 3,500 Chinese in Alberta, fewer than two hundred of whom were women. Therefore, most of the Chinese in Alberta were bachelors living in the Chinatowns and trying to escape persecution and loneliness.

Chinese Cultural Centre, Calgary

In 1923, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act which effectively halted Chinese immigration to Canada. As a result, the Chinese population, during the 1920s and 1930s, began to decrease.

World War II, however, proved to be a turning point in Chinese-Canadian history. When China entered the war on Canada’s side and as an enemy of Japan, Canadians began perceiving the Chinese as allies. Chinese people were accepted into the Canadian army and trained along with the regular troops. There was even a special group of Chinese-Canadians drilled to go into Japanese-controlled territories.

In 1947, the Canadian government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act. Many people from China began arriving and the number of Chinese immigrants increased even more drastically after 1967 when Canadian immigration policy stopped discriminating against immigrants on the basis of their race. While the earlier Chinese immigrants had been uneducated labourers, many of the new immigrants were educated or were people looking to go to university in Canada. Investors and entrepreneurs also started to come to Canada. Many of these new immigrants were from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Very few of these new immigrants were from Mainland China where the strict communist regime made emigration very difficult. More than half of the Chinese immigrants to Canada found jobs in white-collar professions, working as engineers, computer scientists, and doctors. As of 1971, the proportion of Chinese-Canadians with a university education has tended to be at least double that of other Canadians.

Chinese man at Centre Street South, Calgary

As Chinese immigrants are enjoying increased economic success, they are suffering less discrimination. As they make more money, Chinese immigrants tend to settle not so much in Chinatowns but in upscale suburban areas where the population is mixed. Interracial marriages (marriages between Chinese and non-Chinese people) are also becoming much more common. The Chinese form Alberta’s largest visible minority population. As of the 2001 census, 99,095 people of Chinese origin live in Alberta.

Sources

Chan, Anthony B.. Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1983.

Li, Peter S.. Chinese in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985.

Albertans — Who Do They Think They Are: Chinese

Statistics Canada Ethnic Population by Province/Territory: Alberta


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