During this special week we should remember that citizenship is a relatively recent right for some and should never be taken for granted
© Vancouver Sun, Monday April 30, 2007
Editorial Page A9
Canadians of Chinese heritage have a lot to celebrate and commemorate this year. This year is the 60th anniversary of the granting of franchise to persons of Chinese heritage through the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.
This year is also the 90th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge and the 100th anniversary of the anti-Chinese riot in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
For most readers, the linkage of the first and the third events to Chinese Canadians is obvious. But many people may be puzzled by the inclusion of the battle of Vimy Ridge on the list. The sense of puzzlement betrays a preconception that no matter how many generations a Chinese person has settled in this country, he will care only about events that happened to his own community. The fact is, however, the battle of Vimy Ridge is an event that shaped the national identity of this country and all Canadians, including Chinese Canadians, should and have played a part in its commemoration.
The converse is also true of the other two events. The race riot and the Chinese Exclusion Act touched not just Canadians of Chinese heritage. They touched all Canadians and are a part of our collective national memory. But I wonder how many Canadians know or care, about these two events.
I hope this will change this year as several cities in the Lower Mainland proclaim the week of May 14 as the “Celebration of Citizenship” week. A dinner will be held on May 12th to celebrate the granting of the franchise. A group of Second World War Canadian Veterans of Chinese descent is the driving force behind this celebration. These veterans went to war for a country that, at the time, did not recognize them as true Canadians. Some paid the ultimate price on the battlefield.
When they returned, they formed the Chinese Canadian Unit No. 280 of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans of Canada. They lobbied successfully to gain citizenship not just for themselves, but for all Canadians of Chinese heritage.
Although Chinese- Canadians were allowed to vote in federal elections on May 12, 1947, the City of Vancouver continued to deny them their voting rights.
As reported in a newspaper article of the day, counsel for the City of Vancouver stressed that a Chinese vote would impose “terrific responsibility” on the returning officer because the “identification of a Chinese would be a tremendous problem.”
His reasoning was that “many [Chinese] have the same or similar names” and that since “so many look alike that sorting them out would be quite a task.”
I am glad today’s returning officers are not finding the task as onerous as was once perceived. Today, many Chinese Canadians are fully exercising the rights given to them.
They have since excelled in various professional fields where they were once denied membership due to their racial background. These occupations range from accountants, lawyers and doctors. On the political front, they have been elected to serve as members of Parliament, members of provincial legislatures, municipal councillors and mayors. They have also served as lieutenant governors and Governor-General of Canada.
From a time when then prime minister Mackenzie King’s speech “concluded [that it was] not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada, produc[e] a Mongrel race, and interfere very much with white labour in Canada” to the present where our current Prime Minister Stephen Harper embraces Chinese Canadians as citizens, we have come a long way.
In a recent 2006 speech, Harper stated that he “believe[s] that the values held most strongly by our Chinese community are truly Canadian values — the values that have, that are, and that will make us a successful nation if they guide the decisions of government.”
But has Canadian society fully and truly embraced Canadians of Chinese heritage? I think the answer to the question is a qualified yes. While the overt racial discrimination such as the ones expressed in the 1907 riot no longer exists, there is no denying that subtle and equally destructive misguided attitudes and stereotypes still exist.
The good news is that such points of view are being held by fewer and fewer people as time goes by and such attitudes are, by and large, viewed as wrong.
The problem, however, is that sometimes such attitudes and stereotypes are held on both sides.
A sure way to change attitudes towards each other is through more integration. Some have argued that by virtue of living under the same laws, paying the same taxes and occupying the same land that people are, by definition, integrated. I disagree. I believe two communities — Caucasian and Chinese — can only integrate if they interact actively and proactively with each other. An integrated society is a society where people have the capacity and desire to learn, explore, accept, appreciate, share and sacrifice for one another.
During Citizenship Week, we should remember that citizenship is a relatively new right given to Chinese-Canadians and that it should not be taken for granted.
Citizenship should be fully celebrated and the struggles of the past which brought us to this point remembered. If the leaps and bounds in cultural understanding and equality made in the last century are any indication of what is to come, I look forward to the next 100 years.
Perhaps there will come a time where Chinese-Canadians will no longer be distinguished ethnically, but will be recognized as un-hyphenated, Canadian citizens.
Tung Chan is chief executive officer of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. (United Chinese Community Enrichment Social Services) in Vancouver. The views expressed don’t necessarily represent those of S.U.C.C.E.S.S.