Historians of British Columbia

Don Wong provided me with a photo of his grandfather’s $500 Head Tax certificate, that allowed him to become a resident of Canada, in 1912.

Hostile attitudes towards Asians in British Columbia, particularly those with Chinese origins, should vex everyone. A frequent excuse for discrimination throughout the 20th and mid to late 19th centuries, was that Chinese workers had the power to reduce wages being paid to others (read: people of European ancestry). When the Canadian Pacific Railway, along with other transcontinental railways (British)/ railroads (US), was constructed, the Chinese received minimal wages, but were assigned the most dangerous tasks. It was as if their lives were of no consequence. When the rail lines were finally completed, European immigrants expected the Chinese workers to return to China, while they themselves remained in North America.

More recently, some people have laid blame for the Covid-19 pandemic on people of Chinese origins, attacking anyone (everyone?) with a Chinese appearance – mostly verbally but aggressively – in public venues such as shopping centres. This is totally unacceptable.

Much of the current Asian hostility expresses Europhile exceptionalism, that has replaced an earlier Anglophile exceptionalism, that became codified into the history of the province as an anti-Asian consensus.

Confronting this Sinophobia is of personal importance to me. Should I ever become a grandfather, it is most likely, genetically, that my grandchildren will be 50% Chinese, and almost equally likely that they will be living somewhere in Greater Vancouver. Patricia and I will likely share these grandchildren with Louise Yeoh and Don Wong. Don Wong provided a photo of his grandfather’s $500 Head Tax certificate, that allowed him to become a resident of Canada, in 1912. Thank you, Don. Our families have roots going back more than a century to Kerrisdale, Marpole (Eburne), Steveston, Burnaby and New Westminster. Most of these communities are along Sto:lo, the Fraser River.

Much of the early history of British Columbia was researched, written and published by Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832 – 1918), born in Granville, Ohio, but who moved to San Francisco in 1852 where he started the largest bookseller, stationer and publishing house west of Chicago. His research into British Columbia’s history began on a trip to Victoria in 1878. He published a definitive history of the province in 1887, written by himself, William Nemos (Swedish), Alfred Bates (English) and Amos Bowman (1839 – 1894), from Blair, Ontario. The major challenge with this work is its emphasis on pioneer history, where settlers of European origin set the premises for the work. It is the migrants to the area that are intent on determining its history. Despite the First Nations populations far outnumbering these settlers, they were largely ignored, as were people of Asian origin. Despite this shortcoming, Bancroft did, however, manage to strike a balance between British and American perspectives on the province.

The next significant historian was Frederic Howay (1867 – 1943) born in London, Ontario, but who moved first to the Cariboo goldfields as a young child in 1871, and then to New Westminster in 1874. He studied law at Dalhousie University, graduating in 1890. He was appointed a judge in 1907, retiring in 1937. He used as much of his working day as possible writing history. Like his political opponent Richard McBride, Howay was opposed to Asian immigrants.

Walter Sage (1888 – 1963) was born in London, Ontario. He was educated at Oxford University and the University of Toronto. In 1918, he started teaching history at the University of British Columbia (UBC), from 1933 to 1953 as department head. Sage regarded himself as a teacher rather than a researcher. He specialized in the history of British Columbia, especially the personalities that had shaped the province, starting with a 1921 article on The Gold Colony of British Columbia. He was also appreciated for his sense of justice.

Henry Forbes Angus, (1891 – 1991), was born in Victoria, British Columbia. Rather than focusing on his education at McGill University in Montreal, or his prestigious law scholarship that allowed him to study law at Oxford, I will simply state that in 1919, he became an assistant professor of economics at UBC , subsequently becoming professor, department head, and dean of graduate studies.

In 1942 Walter Sage and Henry Angus, protested against the mistreatment and internment of Japanese Canadians. Geographer Kay Anderson (1958 – ) regarded Angus’ opposition as an important breakthrough in the dismantling of the anti-Asian consensus, in the province. Angus regarded Asian-Canadians as part of the “us” (Canadian citizens who regarded British Columbia as their home), and not a “them” (alien outsiders).

Margaret Ormsby (1909 – 1996) was born in Quesnel, raised in the Okanagan, educated in Vancouver and Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She became a professor of history at UBC history in 1955, and department head in 1965. The first book I read written by her on the history of British Columbia was British Columbia: A History (1958). In Chapter 12, “The People’s Dick”, she writes: “The outbreak of the South African War in 1899 found British Columbia standing loyally at the side of the Mother Country: in no other section of Canada was there greater martial ardour or more enthusiastic endorsation of the British Cause.” (p. 327). I have often wondered how much the word British in the province’s name has had a (negative) behavioural influence on its citizens.

Despite the increased professionalism in history, the Canadian public often chooses to read the works of populists, such as Pierre Burton (1920 – 2004), who became editor of the Vancouver Sun, at the age of 21. To his credit, he also opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians.

Another annoying aspect of British exceptionalism, is the monarchy. Monarchies are opaque institutions. In the United Kingdom, over 1 000 laws have been vetted using a secretive procedure – The Queen’s/ now King’s Consent – where government ministers privately notify the Queen/ King of clauses in draft parliamentary bills and ask for her/ his consent to debate them. In essence, this asks her/ his permission to include clauses in legislation. This allows her/ him to change proposed bills before they are presented to elected members of parliament. According to the Guardian, the procedure has been used to conceal her/ his private wealth from the public, and to exclude her/ his estates, and those of her/ his heirs, from proposed laws relating to road safety, land and historic site policy. I do not know how much this has been done in Canada.

My political beliefs have not changed significantly in more than fifty years. At that time, there seemed to be more political understanding, if not consensus, between the left and the right. Now? Not so much. A three minute video by Robert Reich explains it. Because of the deterioration of this understanding, along with increased racism in some segments of the population, it is important to come to grips with anti-Asian sentiments.

Note 1. An inspired source for this weblog post was Chad Reimer (1963 – ), Writing British Columbia History 1784-1958 (2009).

Note 2. This is the first of three parts about British Columbia and Asian Canadians. The second part will examine the situation for Chinese immigrants to Canadians, from Chinese sources. The third part will look at the Komagata Maru.

Note 3. This is being published on the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Water Rabbit, that starts on Sunday, 2023-01-21.