Canada Day: 100th Anniversary of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act

By Chris Mah Poy

It’s okay to not be okay on “Canada Day.”

Canada is the only home I have ever known. It’s a great country and I consider myself to be a patriot in the sense that I love my country and I want to see it succeed. But flag-waving patriotism on Canada Day has been virtually impossible for me to muster as I continue to learn more about Canada’s history of colonialism, genocide and racist policies championed by its prime ministers and national “founders”.

This Canada Day – Saturday, July 1st 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, commonly known as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” that was passed by the Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Act banned the immigration of Chinese people to Canada until its repeal in 1947 when Canada became a signatory to the United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights. July 1st is marked by some Chinese Canadians as “Humiliation Day.” Under the Act’s section 18, every person of Chinese origin or descent in Canada, regardless of allegiance, citizenship or place of birth, was required to register with the authorities and obtain an identity certificate.

Identity paper for Chris Mah Poy's Grandfather, Glen Mah Poy. Glenbow Museum Archives, Glen Mah Poy's Section 18 document, provided by the Mah Poy family.
Identity Certificate for Chris Mah Poy’s grandfather, Glen Mah Poy. (Glenbow Museum Archives, Glen Mah Poy’s Section 18 document, provided by the Mah Poy family.)

My grandfather and great-uncle were required to register with the government as people who could never be “real Canadians”, and my great-grandparents had to pay the head tax (Grandpa Glen’s identity certificate is posted at right). In 1923 immigration from many countries was controlled or restricted in some form, but only the Chinese were completely prohibited from immigrating to Canada. This was not the only Act specifically targeting Chinese immigration and Chinese Canadians, it was preceded by the Acts of 1887, and 1885. The original 1885 legislation was enacted by John A. Macdonald. He told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed.” This was the exact moment in Canada’s history that our first Prime Minister personally introduced the concept of race as a defining legal principle of the state. Macdonald’s comments came as he justified a further amendment to the Exclusion Act taking the vote away from anyone “of Mongolian or Chinese race” regardless of whether they were “naturalized” (or born in Canada) or new immigrants. He warned that, if the Chinese (who had been in British Columbia as long as Europeans) were allowed to vote, “they might control the vote of that whole Province” and their “Chinese representatives” would foist “Asiatic principles,” “immoralities,” and “eccentricities” on the House “which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles.” He further claimed that “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics” and that “the cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”

Macdonald’s commentary on the Act’s necessity, specifically the need to keep Canada “Aryan” by discouraging mixed marriages went beyond immigration policy. Macdonald’s sentiments would abet an insidious extra-legal regime of informal anti-miscegenation policies enforced through different laws and courts in Canada (see Velma Demerson and Harry Hip and Isabella Jones and Ira Johnson) in addition to the institutional and cultural systems that enforced extra-legal segregationist laws (Viola Desmond, Quong-Wing v. R, Christie v. York Corporation, Noble and Wolf v. Alley, Narine-Singh v. A.G. of Canada).

Canada’s “founding father” was a racist, who believed that I, as a mixed-race person, should not exist and that my ancestors should not be part of the Canadian experience.

On this 100th anniversary of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act I am arguing that reckoning with the truth of history is an authentic and defiant act of patriotism; an exercise in civics and nation-building. Understanding the terrors and triumphs of your country’s history is an act of loyalty. Learning from that history to ensure that all people can live, thrive and be free to be their best selves in Canada is an act of love.

I won’t be waving a flag on July 1st and that is an act of patriotism too.

I hope that you will join me in holding in prayer all those who glorify the past without understanding it and all those who would use patriotism as an excuse to be bigoted.

I hope that you will join me in holding in prayer all those who have mixed, conflicted, traumatic, defiant, sad, furious, powerful and hopeful emotions on July 1st.

I hope that you will join your fellow Canadians in an honest, authentic and good-faith examination of history. Textbooks, museums, and libraries are where we learn history and monuments, statues, street names and place names are about who society chooses to glorify.

I invite you to consider this question on July 1st – What does defiant, disrespectful and honest patriotism mean to you?

Christopher Lynn Currie Mah Poy-馬蕙亮 (he/him/his) is a multiethnic settler Canadian of Chinese, Scottish, and English ancestry serving the Chinook Winds Regional Council of The United Church of Canada as First Third Ministry and Justice Animator. He will be marking July 1st with his family in Vancouver at the opening of The Paper Trail to the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act exhibit at the Chinese Canadian Museum.

If you would like to know more about the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act visit the Chinese Canadian Museum in Vancouver, your local library or Historica Canada. If you would like to get involved in shaping a better future for all people in Canada contact your local Reconciliation, Pride, Refugee, Anti-Racism or Human Rights organization or your local, friendly neighbourhood justice animator (Email Chris).