On June 23, 2023, a national remembrance ceremony was held in the Senate of Canada Chamber to mark the centenary of the Chinese Immigration Act, more commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Introduced by the Canadian government on July 1, 1923, the Act was the result of a series of laws passed since 1885 to limit the number of Chinese immigrants to Canada. The Act banned most forms of Chinese immigration for 24 years until it was repealed in 1947. Even Chinese Canadians who were born in Canada prior to 1923 were required to register with the government; otherwise, they would face imprisonment, fines or threats of deportation. The Act inflicted much trauma in the Chinese Canadian community, fueling discrimination and exclusion still felt by Chinese Canadians today.
Glenbow’s Director of External Relations & Marketing Cynthia Chang-Christison was amongst those invited to attend the commemoration held in the Senate Chamber, with thousands joining by livestream from over 500 watch parties across the country. As a Chinese Canadian, Cynthia shares what this experience meant to her.
Being with generations of Chinese Canadians from across the country to witness this moment in Canada’s history was a humbling yet powerful experience, one that will stay with me always.
In the Senate Chamber, stories were shared about the sacrifices made by Chinese Canadians who came before us. Through song, dance and spoken word, we heard about the pain and suffering our community endured as a result of this dark time in Canadian history. Guests wore t-shirts emblazoned with their ancestors’ head tax or exclusion act certificates, a compelling reminder of how long Chinese people have been in this country and the contributions they made in building our nation. Accounts about the ties early Chinese immigrants had with Indigenous people were also shared, with Indigenous people offering food, medicine and shelter to Chinese workers building the railway that would unite Canada. Throughout the ceremony, we honoured the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.
As a second generation Chinese Canadian born to Taiwanese immigrants who arrived in the 1970s, my family was not subject to these racist laws; however, we felt and continue to feel the impacts, just like many Chinese Canadians. Growing up in rural British Columbia, my parents raised my younger brother and I to be proud of our culture and our family’s history–they even painstakingly taught us to read and write Chinese every day before school. Despite their efforts to build a strong cultural identity within me, the racism, exclusion and shame I experienced led me to reject my Chinese identity, leaving me uncomfortable in my own skin and impacting how I showed up in this world. I learned that my voice didn’t matter and that being quiet was safe.
In my role prior to Glenbow, I had the privilege of working with Indigenous Elders and communities. Through that experience, I learned about the importance of culture to one’s identity–it is what roots us and fosters connection and belonging, crucial to personal growth and wellbeing. I realized that I had to embrace my cultural roots for my children, so that they can live their lives from a place of knowing who they are and having the absolute freedom to be who they are meant to be.
The last few years have been quite the journey, filled with much introspection and exploration of reclaiming my “Chinese-ness.” It wasn’t until recently, through my work with Glenbow, that I had the opportunity to connect with Calgary’s Chinese Canadian community. My family and I have been whole-heartedly welcomed, subject to a whirlwind of dragon and lion dance (they are different–who knew?!), mahjong and new friendships. It is through these new connections that led me to the Senate Chamber just days ago.
Sitting in the chamber, I felt waves of emotions: anger, sadness, shame, regret–but also validation, pride, hope and great honour. I also thought a lot about my father and what this moment would have meant to him. Though he loved this country, I remember the hurt and resentment he felt when he would talk about the head tax or July 1 as “Humiliation Day” for Chinese Canadians. I know my father would have been proud.
Thank you to Senator Victor Oh, Senator Yuen Pau Woo and the Action! Chinese Canadians Together Foundation for hosting this historic event. With anti-Asian racism on the rise since the pandemic, it is critical to call attention to this period of Canada’s history and celebrate the contributions of Chinese Canadians over the last century. This life-altering experience has left me with a deeper understanding of who I am in this world, and has inspired a renewed commitment to myself, my family and my community.
Also, thank you Glenbow for supporting me on my journey and helping me find my voice. I am proud to be part of an organization dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and committed to creating a welcoming, inclusive and safe space where everyone feels that they belong.