B.C. apology to Chinese community highlights ongoing racism towards migrant workers

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"The federal and provincial governments must be held accountable not only for their racist and discriminatory policies of the past, but also for the continuation of such policies today."

On May 15, Premier Christy Clark delivered a long-awaited and overdue apology to British Columbia's Chinese communities on behalf of the B.C. legislature. The apology expressed the provincial government's regret for the discriminatory treatment endured by Chinese residents as a result of racist provincial laws enacted between 1871 and 1947. It also recognized the important contributions made by Chinese Canadians to B.C.'s history, culture and economy.

The apology reads, in part, that the B.C. governments' laws "denied British Columbia's Chinese communities' basic human rights, including but not limited to, the right to vote, hold public office or own property; imposed labour, educational and employment restrictions; subjected them to health and housing segregation and prevented them from fully participating in society."

Many people in the Chinese (and wider) communities were profoundly dissatisfied with this apology, suggesting that it was more about 'vote pandering and photos ops' than the pursuit of justice for Chinese families (see this recent commentary by Ian Young in the South China Morning Post). Furthermore, as many racialized groups living in Canada today can attest, while an apology is an important step in the right direction, it does little to heal the profound damage caused by family separation.

Not unlike days gone by, racist immigration laws and labour policies continue to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from participating fully in Canadian society. These policies, which separate, exclude and subordinate temporary foreign workers of colour, stem from the same racist ideologies aimed at curbing Chinese immigration in the past.

Under Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which B.C. joined in 2004, migrant people are not eligible for permanent residency, nor can their families accompany them to Canada. This is in despite of their long-term employment on Canadian farms, with some of them returning annually to work in different provinces for 30 years or more. In addition, these workers must live in accommodations provided by their employer, which are often racially segregated and far removed from city centres.

In the Live-In Caregiver Program, women who come as nannies must leave their own children behind while they care for the children of Canadian families. And migrants employed in mines, including those of Chinese descent, are met with hostility and suspicion, even from B.C. unions.

Many migrants face unsafe working conditions and reside in accommodations that would be unacceptable to most Canadians. They do not have the freedom to change jobs, employers or accommodations at will, nor can they study while they are in Canada. Many families who remain behind, in countries such as Mexico, Jamaica and the Philippines, are not eligible for visas to visit their family members employed in B.C., often resulting in extended periods of separation.

Today, such immigration laws are not framed in terms of ethnic origin or 'race,' but rather as 'permanent citizens' versus 'temporary migrants' -- terms that remain racially loaded. These new discourses stress the foreignness of 'migrants' and the nativeness of Canadians, reproducing a system of global apartheid that subordinates foreign workers even while it upholds the rights of citizens.

These conversations, as we have seen of late, often revolve around 'temporary' migrants stealing jobs from citizens or taking unfair advantage of social services. This perpetuates older stereotypes of racialized groups being both deceitful and lazy. Furthermore, such talk shifts the focus away from more meaningful discussions around increasing job cutbacks and the mismanagement of Canadian and global economies.

Apologies, like the one delivered by Clark, serve as a useful distraction for a government that is struggling to justify its continued reliance on precarious, racialized and 'temporary' labour.

The federal and provincial governments must be held accountable not only for their racist and discriminatory policies of the past, but also for the continuation of such policies today.

If the province of British Columbia is to aspire to be, as the apology claims, "a fair and just society where people of all nations and cultures are welcomed, accepted and respected," the migrant people who live in our communities and work in restaurants and hotels, on farms, ranches and in our homes, must no longer be denied full political and social membership. They are integral members of our communities and must be consulted on the decisions that affect their lives. They deserve the right to remain in Canada with their families in communities that value them as people and not merely as workers. 


Amy Cohen is a Professor of Anthropology at Okanagan College. Elise Hahn is currently completing her Master's at UBC Okanagan in Political Studies. Both are community organizers and the co-founders of Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA). 

Photo: flickr/Leo Fung

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