By Al Campbell
Chinese-Canadian soldiers who fought for Canada in the Second World War, despite being second-class citizens without the right to vote at the time, are the subject of a new exhibition opened in Vancouver Tuesday.
The Chinese Canadian Veterans: Loyal to Country exhibition is the latest project of the Chinese-Canadian Military Museum Society. Through old photos, personal artifacts and documents, it examines the role and the achievements of the approximately 800 Chinese-Canadian soldiers who fought for the country during the conflict.
At the time, Chinese-Canadians, either born in Canada or immigrants to, were essentially second-class citizens. Between 1885 and 1923, the Canadian government imposed a head tax on Chinese, the only race the practice was applied to, to deter their arrival. When that was abolished in 1923, the Oriental Exclusion Act was imposed through to 1947.
The practice effectively ended any Chinese immigration to Canada for 24 years, keeping families apart for decades.
Wai Young, a member of the Parliament representing Vancouver South, whose own grandfather paid the head tax, called it a “dark chapter in Canada’s history.”
“This exhibit commemorates the impacts of the Head Tax and the Chinese Immigration Act, as well as the wartime discrimination and stigma experienced by Chinese Canadians veterans and their families,” she said at the opening ceremony.
“The government is committed to recognizing these immigrant experiences so that the stories are not lost.”
Despite such exclusionary practices at the time, many young Chinese-Canadians enlisted or were conscripted for the country’s armed forces and fought in Europe and Southeast Asia. Others stayed in Canada, helping the war effort working in logging camps, munitions packing plants and in food processing, among others.
Both believed their efforts would help change how Canadians perceived the “yellow race” and end the discriminatory practices.