First Asian Immigrants

Captain John Meares, a fur trader involved in the lucrative sea otter trade off Canada's West Coast, was the first to have the idea of bringing Chinese workers to the coast (courtesy Provincial Archives of British Columbia/PDP5179).

The very first Chinese immigrants to Canada arrived well over 200 years ago and their fate has remained a mystery ever since. They were brought by Captain John Meares, a fur trader who hoped to tap the lucrative sea otter trade off Canada's West Coast. Since most of the otter pelts were sold in China, he had the idea of bringing Chinese workers to the coast, where they could collect otter, build outposts and repair ships.

Meares hired the men at Canton (today called Guangzhou) and on 22 January 1788 left for the Northwest Coast. They arrived off Vancouver Island in May. Bringing the Chinese was an experiment, Meares admitted, but he soon found them "hardy and industrious, as well as ingenious." It helped that they would work harder and for less money than Europeans.

At Nootka Sound, the Chinese worked to repair the ships, to build accommodations and also to build a new vessel, the North West American, the first non-native ship ever built on the Northwest Coast. On a second trip to Nootka Sound, a Spanish naval force seized Meares' ships and hauled them and the crews off to Mexico.

The fate of the Chinese is uncertain. Some managed to return to China and others were lost. But it seems that others stayed and integrated with the Aboriginal community.

Learn more: John Meares
Chinese arrived in late 1700s