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Burnaby to apologize for well-documented anti-Chinese discrimination

A report to council details the many ways in which Burnaby city council deliberately discriminated against people of Chinese and Asian origin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A photo of a 2019 exhibit at Burnaby Village museum exploring the history of Chinese Canadians in Burnaby. Burnaby Village Museum

The City of Burnaby has launched a review of historical discrimination against Chinese Canadians within the city.

An announcement from the city says the review will include an advisory committee that will connect with residents of Chinese descent to identify specific recommendations to address instances of historical discrimination—“including acknowledgement and a formal apology.”

The move coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 later this year on July 1, federal legislation designed to essentially halt all immigration from China.

The act was established to replace the Chinese head tax, which attempted to dissuade Chinese people from entering Canada by imposing a $50 fee on their entry—the fee was later increased to $100, then $500.

A report presented at Monday’s city council meeting put together a framework to pursue reconciliation and a formal apology to the Chinese Canadian community.

“It’s important to acknowledge that systemic racism faced by people of the Chinese community was not just on a federal and provincial level. It wasn’t just the head tax and the exclusion act. It happened right here in Burnaby City Hall. Council advocated for a number of discriminatory policies—whether [they were related to] land use, business policies, or unfair labour practices,” Coun. Daniel Tetrault said Monday night.

“It’s important that we recognize that through a formal apology, and again through further community engagement, and recognize that that’s just the starting point for reconciliation and a step that recognizes and takes responsibility for historical injustices and systemic racism that occurred in Burnaby City Hall.”

Coun. Alison Gu likewise noticed that while many members of the community were directly impacted by federal and provincial legislation, Burnaby City Hall actively and deliberately advocated for discriminatory policies against Asian immigrants.

“One example: in 1927, council endorsed a resolution regarding Oriental exclusion, which was forwarded to us by the Vancouver Ku Klux Klan, and requested that we call for the deportation of all Asian migrants and Asian Canadians and the expropriation of their property,” Gu told her fellow councillors.

“Only two councillors opposed this. These policies that have restricted access to land, restricted access to good jobs—not even good jobs, just jobs, sustenance. And livelihood, business, and the ways we weaponized our bylaws to target these groups is something we need to reconcile with, apologize for, and we need to take very real actions to make reparations for.”

The report originally submitted to members of the community heritage commission lays out some of the ways in which Burnaby City Hall directly discriminated against Chinese Canadians in the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries.

For example, council unanimously endorsed a resolution in 1921 that called on the provincial government to allow municipalities the right to prohibit Asian immigrants from buying or leasing land.

In 1922, the city made an unsuccessful bid to the BC Attorney General to amend the Municipality Act to allow cities to refuse applications from “Orientals” to become licensed wholesale or retail traders in Burnaby.

Chinese and Japanese workers were also prohibited from working for the municipality—whether they were employed directly or through a contractor—and a resolution asking the city to give preference "to firms employing none but British subjects or white labour when purchasing supplies”, put forward by the Burnaby Board of Trade, was unanimously endorsed in 1914.

The city also worked diligently to restrict voting rights for Chinese Canadians, along with policies and bylaws that targeted Chinese-owned businesses.

“For far too long, Chinese Canadians were subjected to systemic and targeted discrimination from all levels of government in Canada and the effects of those discriminatory policies continue to be felt in our community today,” Mayor Mike Hurley said in a press release Monday night.

“We cannot hide from our past—but we can commit to spending the time and effort to better understand the struggles this community faced, and how we might move forward together.”