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Chinese Settlement and Frontier Oppression

The years from 1885 to 1910 were distinctive ones in the historical evolution of Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge; the period was also highly significant in terms of the establishment of local Chinese communities. In 1885 Calgary was a small railway town, with some likelihood of expanding into a major transportation centre. Edmonton was a hamlet which had not lived up to its promise. Medicine Hat and Lethbridge were fledgling towns with an uncertain future.

The first Chinese pioneers in Alberta arrived in 1885, but during the 1880s and 1890s there were relatively few Chinese in the area. As increasing numbers of immigrants and Canadians arrived in the territory of Alberta (which became a province in 1905), more Chinese settled in Alberta, residing primarily in the larger centres. By 1910 there were Chinatowns in Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge; this was indicative of the increased number of Chinese pioneers in these centres. From this year onward distinct, recognizable Chinese urban communities can be said to have existed in Alberta.

Frontier oppression of Chinese in Alberta was but one example of what has aptly been termed the Anti-Chinese Movement: a rather amorphous, but determinedly purposeful and powerful, movement which found solid support in the United States and, later, in Canada.

Americans' highly unfavourable, stereotypical views of the Chinese as a people can be dated to the days of the China trade in the late 1700s. Pertinent documentation concerning the period 1785 to 1840 strongly demonstrates that a majority of American traders who visited China before the California Gold Rush concluded that the Chinese were "ridiculously clad, superstitious ridden, dishonest, crafty, cruel, and marginal members of the human race..."

Not surprisingly, when Chinese arrived in California, Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment found fertile ground among many bigots and racists located along the Pacific coast. Serious hostility toward the Chinese was initially aroused by white miners opposed to Chinese engaging in gold mining: false accusations were made about great mineral wealth being siphoned off to China; disgruntled whites blamed Chinese for supposedly unfair competition.

Soon, Chinese labor in general was viciously and inaccurately attacked on various grounds, including the unfair competition complaint - even as white capitalists increasingly and shamefully exploited Chinese workers.

Later, in B.C., during and after the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes (1858 into the mid-1860s), the same pattern of unfair accusations, accompanying hostility, and Sinophobia manifested itself. British Columbians' reaction to the Chinese presence reflected the American's long-standing, intensely negative, portrayals and conceptions of the Chinese people.

During the frontier era, the Anti-Chinese Movement directly and indirectly inflicted tremendous hardships upon Chinese communities. Legislative action at all levels created much misery, frustration, and consternation. American exclusion acts were passes, and Canada's extortionate federal head taxes were imposed on Chinese immigrants.

B.C. passed a host of laws directed against the Chinese; while some laws were declared unconstitutional, others were not. From laws barring Chinese from specific occupations to laws intended solely to harass Chinese businessmen, workers, and communities, anti-Chinese legislation in the Pacific province exacted a terrible toll in both personal and group terms.

By 1910 or so the Anti-Chinese Movement had become a less significant force, especially in terms of the intensity of its activities. In the case of Alberta, this was reflected in the absence of any acts of irrational, racist mob violence.

By about 1910, too, the garrison mentality of Alberta's urban centres was being transformed into an urban mentality with the beginning of a social consciousness appearing. In 1910 Chinese in Calgary successfully relocated Chinatown in an area of their own choosing, despite minor opposition. This clearly revealed that a more considerate, moderate mentality was being formed in the minds of Albertans.

Reprinted from Moon Cakes In Gold Mountain: From China to the Canadian Plains by Brian Dawson with kind permission of the author.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.