Not so Nice After All: 4 Examples of Racist Canadian History That You May Never Have Heard Of

Canadians like to think that we’re a pretty nice bunch.

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Especially now, as Drumpf’s presidential candidacy reveals the racist underbelly of our neighbours to the South, we Canadians pride ourselves on being nothing like the States. We happily disassociate ourselves from the violence and xenophobia that seems to crop up at every Drumpf rally.

It’s just so incredibly convenient to revel in our not-Americanness, as though that in itself makes us not racist. We try to pretend that same kind of racism doesn’t exist here, even though the same fear-baiting tactic was used in our recent election. We try to ignore the recent hateful attack on Syrian refugees, newly arrived in Canada. We try to forget that our country was built upon the exploitation of people of colour.

In case you aren’t sure what I’m referring to, I’ve included a couple examples below.

1. Canada had Legal Slavery

In elementary school the only time I learned about slavery and Canada was when we studied the Underground Railway. Through these stories of escape and hope I, like many Canadians, was led to believe that Canada had offered an escape for Black men and women who were trapped as slaves in the United States.

What I never knew (until recently) was that Canada was not always the beacon of hope that it appeared. As historian Natasha Henry highlights in her article about Slavery in Canada,

“African slavery existed in the colonies of New France and British North America for over 200 years, yet there remains a profound silence in classrooms and teaching resources about Canada’s involvement in the African slave trade. According to available historical documents, least 4,000 Africans were held in bondage for two centuries in the early colonial settlements of New France (Quebec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Upper Canada (Ontario).”

Luckily, novelists have begun to draw attention to the stories that our history books have overlooked. Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique, for example, tells the true story of Canadian slave Marie-Joseph Angélique. Meanwhile, Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negros, reminds us that many escaped slaves were actually shipped back to the States by Canadian authorities. He also explores the extreme racism that drove some black Canadians to move to Sierra Leone.

2. Canadian Policy Prevented Indigenous Farmers from Competing with White Settlers

There are so many examples of the Canadian state exploiting the nations who preceded us. Taking their land, for example. Or forcefully taking several generations of their kids away and conducting “nutritional experiments” on them, for another. However, for this post I wanted to share something with you that I hadn’t heard about until very recently: the Canadian state essentially prevented reserves from farming.

In Sarah Carter’s paper titled “Two Acres and a Cow: ‘Peasant Farming’ for the Indians of the Northwest, 1889-97” she studies the government policy of “Peasant Farming” that was meant to break down the “tribal” or “communist” spirit found on reserve farms. The policy was strictly enforced by Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed, who insisted that Indigenous peoples of Canada should not be allowed to make the “unnatural leap” in their evolution from “barbarism” to 19th century tools. Reed banned labour-saving machinery and insisted Indigenous farmers go back to using hand tools.

While Carter’s article highlights that Reed was a massive a**hole, she also draws attention to the influence of white settlers on the policy. You see, before Reed’s policy came into place, farmers on reserves were able to pool their funds to buy equipment and seed and then work their land together. This communal approach meant they could actually produce extra food, which they could then sell.

Naturally, white settlers protested the competition from Indigenous farmers, and since Indigenous peoples weren’t able to vote until 1960 in Canada, politicians cared a lot more about the interests of white farmers than farmers on reserves. Reed’s “peasant farming” policy (along with the many other restrictions of the Indian Act) quickly got rid of any competition from Indigenous farmers by subdividing property into individual family farms and forcing them to use inferior equipment. Conveniently, while dividing up the more fertile reserve land government officials also managed to find a bunch of “surplus” land they could sell to white settlers.

3. The Canadian State Ignored the Key Role of Chinese Settlers, Then Tried to Kick Them Out

One of the few parts of Canadian history that actually acknowledges the vast contribution Chinese-Canadians made to Nation building is that of the Canadian Pacific railway.

However, by focusing on the role of Chinese labour in building the railway, videos like the one featured above, frame Chinese Canadians as relatively new arrivals. In reality, Chinese settlers actually predated most European settlers along the West coast. Henry Yu more elaborated on this problem in “Towards a Pacific History of the Americas,” his introduction to Beyond the 49th Parallel:

“One of the major legacies of [white supremacist] nation-building was a mythology that erased those who were there upon arrival… White settlers became ‘Native’ (as in the phrase ‘native-born’ to describe these settlers’ own children), and all others were either relegated to the status of pre-history (prehistoric peoples doomed to disappear with the onset of the central history of white settlement) or by a mythical sleight-of-hand defined as perpetual late arrivers. When we see anti-Asian politics as the centerpiece of this global development, we understand that it was Asian labor that migrated first, moved around the Pacific by colonialism and the labor needs of plantation agriculture and industrial development. But the anti-Asian politics that helped to unite the growing hordes of settlers through white supremacy erased their existence. It is one of the great ironies of this process that the very railroads that Chinese laborers built made it easier and cheaper to transport the settlers who arrived afterwards and demanded that ‘the Chinese must go.’ The rhetoric of exclusion was that Asians took jobs from whites—in reality it was the other way around. The great ‘driving out’ of Chinese was predicated not upon eliminating a late-arriving threat, but a pre-existing reality.”

Chinese immigrants had long been marrying into indigenous communities along the West Coast. Chinese-Canadian farmers also rented land from indigenous communities in the lower mainland and were once responsible for providing most of Vancouver’s produce.

In spite of their pivotal role as farmers and labourers during the early years of Canadian nation building, Canada’s national myth of white supremacy allowed policy makers to find new ways to exclude and remove anyone with a Chinese heritage from Canada. With the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, the Canadian government “forced every Chinese worker, and family member, wanting to enter Canada to pay a $50 head tax. (In 2008, this amount would buy goods worth $1,100)”. While most Canadians know about the Chinese head tax, I personally didn’t know that under another Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, the Canadian government required Chinese-Canadians “to register with the government or they could be deported”.

4. The State Stole Japanese-Canadian Land and Property

Anti-Asian sentiment was at a fever pitch in Canada and the States during the Second World War. In WWII propaganda material, like the one I’ve included to the left, Hitler is even less of a caricature than General Hideki Tōjō, to his right.

While both Canada and the United States are guilty of interning citizens of Japanese heritage during the war, Canada took it a step further by selling the property of interned citizens (often far below market value) and using the money to pay for their imprisonment.

It’s worth noting that there wasn’t even one Japanese-Canadian who was ever accused of being a spy during the Second World War. Even RCMP Commissioner S. T. Wood admitted in a secret letter sent to W. S. Stevenson in 1942 that  “We have had no evidence of espionage or sabotage among the Japanese in British Columbia.”

However, the internment of Japanese-Canadians did open up the fishing industry for white fishermen, who had complained about competition from successful Japanese-Canadian fishermen. It also opened up some of the most valuable property in British Columbia, around Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and fertile farming areas like Saltspring Island.

Once families were taken from their homes, sometimes in the dead of night, they were generally separated so that the men could be put to work on road camps. Women and children were held in livestock barns in Hastings park until they were moved to “hastily built camps” in British Columbia’s interior

After the war the Canadian government tried to deport as many Japanese-Canadians as it could. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia,

“In 1945, the inmates of the camps, in a biased survey, were forced to choose between deportation to Japan or uncertain dispersal to a location east of the Rocky Mountains. Most chose the latter and were shipped through demobilized POW camps and air bases to Ontario, Québec or the Prairie provinces. In December 1945 ̶ a full year after the US had permitted Japanese Americans to return to their homes on the US Pacific coast ̶ the Canadian government defied Parliament to give the Cabinet the power to deport 10,000 Japanese Canadians to war-ravaged Japan. With freedom of the press restored in January 1946, the deportation plans became general knowledge and produced a massive public protest from all parts of Canada. Referring the matter quickly to the courts to buy time for a political solution, the federal government accelerated the dispersal of Japanese Canadians to provinces east of the Rocky Mountains and expedited the shipment to Japan of 4,000 Japanese Canadians ̶ 2,000 of whom were aging Issei, who had lost everything and despaired over starting again, and 1,300 of whom were children under 16 years of age. The remaining 700 were young Nisei over 16 years of age who could not or would not abandon their aging parents.”


The Canadian nation has made an active effort to overlook or downplay the parts of our history that don’t fit our “nice” reputation. It’s especially easy to ignore these details when our neighbours to the South are doing such a good job making us look good in comparison. But it’s essential for us to remember all of our history, so we don’t end up in the same situation as the States.

After all, if white Canadians choose to forget that we were immigrants, and that much of our privilege was won at the expense of Canadians of colour, we might be tricked into believing that we can solve all our problems by locking people out.

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