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The Chinese have a long history in Canada, and today are the third largest ethnic group in the country, behind the English and French. Chinese Canadians—nearly 1.5 million strong—are a vibrant community characterized by an energetic entrepreneurial spirit, an emphasis on education, flourishing cultural traditions and a commitment to family and community values.

First Chinese Immigrants to Canada

The first Chinese immigrants, a group of 50 artisans who accompanied fur trader Captain John Meares, settled in British Columbia as early as 1788. By the 1850s, many more were arriving on Canada’s west coast via the San Francisco gold fields. Some 15,000 of these immigrants, most of them young peasants, found work building the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, labouring under appalling and dangerous conditions. Largely because of the railway, Chinese communities developed across the nation.

During the 19th century, war and unrest in China compelled many peasants and workers to seek opportunities elsewhere. Between 1858 and 1923, thousands immigrated to Canada, although a “head tax” for entry (imposed only on the Chinese)—at first $50, later $500—decreased the number of new immigrants. Finally, on 1 July 1923 (known to many Chinese Canadians as “Humiliation Day”), the restrictive Chinese Immigration Act was replaced with even harsher legislation that virtually cut off Chinese immigration for the next quarter century.

The object of hostility, discrimination and suspicion, the Chinese in Canada developed their own close-knit communities. In particular, Vancouver’s Chinatown became a thriving economic and social centre for families and businesses. Outside of Chinatown, many Chinese found work (though at low wages) in British Columbia sawmills and canneries, sometimes as part of work gangs under a Chinese labour contractor who had paid their cost to come to Canada. The earliest Chinese professionals tended to serve primarily the Chinese community; in British Columbia, Chinese were barred for many years from professions such as law, accounting and pharmacy.

Chinese Immigrants to Canada after 1947

In 1947, Canadian immigration policy changed, opening up the country once again to Chinese immigrants. Since then many Chinese families and individuals have emigrated from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, as well as from elsewhere around the globe. Many of these immigrants came to Canada with professional credentials, a high level of education and a good knowledge of English, all of which served them well as they settled in their new country, mostly in urban areas of Ontario and British Columbia. Chinese Canadians now participate in every sector of the work force, in business and in Canadian political life.

Chinese Canadians Today

The Chinese Canadian community reflects both old and new social and cultural traditions and values. Links of kinship remain strong, though the nature of kinship groups and families has changed over the years. Various associations adapted from models in China traditionally had an important place in community life; gradually, more typically Canadian organizations (such as Elks and veterans’ associations) sprang up in the community. As more time passed, professional organizations, notably the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada (founded in 1992), grew in importance. Cultural groups (many of them established to serve Chinese from different areas of the world) and traditional cultural activities such as Chinese theatre and opera, as well as martial arts, still flourish. Chinese-language newspapers and television programs have wide followings. At the same time, Chinese Canadians contribute richly to a dynamic new literary and artistic culture; Chinese Canadian authors, filmmakers and musicians have made names for themselves well beyond Canada’s borders.

Religion for Chinese in Canada has most commonly been expressed in private, and census results from a number of years indicate that religion is declining in importance among Chinese Canadians. Some practice Buddhism, while others are Roman Catholic or Protestant Christians, and a small minority follows other religious or philosophical traditions. Chinese Canadians of various affiliations come together to celebrate several important festivals, especially the Lunar New Year.

Education has traditionally been important in Chinese life, partly a legacy of the Confucian tradition that values scholarship. Many Chinese Canadians pursue higher education, and there are numerous student exchange programs between China and Canada.

Politically, Chinese in Canada have always been active, beginning long before they were granted citizenship or the right to vote (neither of which occurred until 1947). The Workingmen’s Protective Association, formed in 1878 in Victoria, was an early civil rights organization that rallied against poor working conditions and economic restrictions. Chinese Canadians also united to lobby against both the head tax and the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. Although their efforts in Ottawa were unsuccessful at the time, many years later, in 2006, the Chinese Canadian community at last won a long-overdue apology and compensation from the federal government for the head tax that had been imposed for nearly 40 years. The Chinese Canadian National Council, established around 1979 and also involved in the head tax redress lobbying, among other initiatives, has also been an important political organization protecting the civil and human rights of Chinese Canadians. Today, many Chinese Canadians are involved in politics at various levels.

Canada-China Relations

China is an important export market for Canadian products such as natural resources, and Canada imports a substantial amount of goods (such as electronics and mechanical equipment) from China. Canada has also invested in many sectors of the Chinese economy. The two countries have had friendly diplomatic relations since 1970, and share significant scientific, cultural and academic ties. In 1994, Canada developed a policy on China that focused on economic partnership, sustainable development, human rights and good governance, and peace and security. Recent additional emphases include climate change and the environment as well as public health.

Learn more:
Chinese in The Canadian Encyclopedia
From C to C: Chinese Canadian Stories of Migration