Being Canadian, there’s lots to be proud of. From boreal forests to salty coasts, we have some of the world’s most beautiful views. We’re nice, and we consistently rank highly on the “best countries to live in” list.
But, while there’s lots to love about Canada, a closer look at our country’s story reveals a not-so-innocent past. The four stories below are just a few examples of the dark, well-hidden history that lies behind Canada’s beautiful views and friendly faces.
The SS Komagata Maru sailed to Canada from India in 1914 just prior to the start of the First World War, anchoring on the coast of Vancouver. Canada did not allow any of the passengers ashore (except for the few Canadian citizens returning) and so they were forced to stay on the ship. During this time, communication with the outside world was almost non-existent, food and water were not supplied, and there was even an attempt for Canadian police to take over the ship.
The case of the Komagata Maru was eventually taken to the British Columbia Court of Appeal, where they quickly sided with the Canadian government, not allowing the passengers to come to land. Many lives were lost because of the cruel treatment and violence endured by passengers.
What’s more, this incident highlighted the racial disparities and mistreatment of Indians and Southeast Asians in Canada. This refusal of the passengers was part of the anti-Asian immigration policies that were in place throughout Canada at the time. In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to the Canadian Sikh community in BC, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized once again in 2016.
Chinese Head Tax
Following a large influx of Chinese immigration to Canada for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800's to early 1900's, the government implemented new immigration restrictions. The logic behind these policies — which, today, would certainly be criticized for its racist direction — was to encourage just enough immigration to provide labour for this massive project, while also keeping the population of Chinese residents in Canada to a minimum.
As a result, before Chinese immigrants could enter the country, they were forced to pay an expensive head tax. The tax was in place for nearly 40 years, with around $23 million collected from over 82,000 Chinese immigrants. The tax was finally removed in 1923, but alas, this was only the beginning of the hardship faced by Chinese newcomers in our country. Soon, once Canada decided it had enough of the immigration, the head tax was replaced with a new policy: the Chinese Exclusion Act. This Act blocked all Chinese immigrants from entering Canada until 1947. Meanwhile, in Newfoundland, the Chinese head tax remained in place, allowing Chinese immigrants to enter for the price of $300 each, until Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.
Between the head tax and the Exclusion Act, early Chinese immigrants to Canada did not have it easy, and that’s without considering the socioeconomic challenges thrown their way, like racism from their community. It’s difficult to reconcile the story of the first wave of Chinese newcomers back in the 19th century with Canada’s current reputation as a welcoming home for those seeking a safer, more prosperous future. This is one of the many dark stories we rarely hear about in Canadian history classes; but, like the Komagata Maru, it’s one that we should never forget.
Japanese, Jewish, German and Italian Internment
You may have heard of the Nazi-run internment camps – or concentration camps, as they’re usually called – from the Second World War, and of the horrible crimes that occurred inside their walls. But did you know that Canada had internment camps of their own?
For example, in 1940, as Canada entered WWII, 600 Canadians of Italian descent were interned and accused of sympathizing with fascists, simply because of their background. In addition to those being interned, 31,000 Italian Canadians were registered as enemy aliens, forcing them to report to their local RCMP stations once a month.
Jewish Canadians experienced a similar situation. In 1940, several thousand Jewish refugees were brought into Canada and were interned in guarded camps in several provinces. These Jewish refugees were forced into these camps alongside Nazi Germans who were being held by the Canadian government.
In the later years of the War, German immigrants – some of which had been in Canada since the 1920s - were forced to register, like the Italians, with the government. Many of these German immigrants had been accused of spying and were called Nazis.
Japan’s position in the War – siding with Germany and Italy, and against Canada, the UK, and the rest of the Allied powers – unfortunately gave Japanese Canadians a negative reputation among the public. This negative sentiment escalated until, eventually, anyone of Japanese origin was also forced to register with the Canadian government. In 1941, when Japan dropped the bomb on Pearl Harbour, nearly 1000 Japanese Canadians were taken and held in internment camps. What’s more, in 1942, approximately 21,000 Japanese Canadians were expelled from their homes.
So, while we remember the heroism of Canadian troops and their bravery during the War, we should also reflect on the pain and struggles experienced by our fellow Canadians here at home.
MS St Louis
In 1939, the MS St Louis was forced to return to Europe after both Canada and the United States turned it away. Fleeing the Nazi regime as Hitler began his occupation of Europe, the ship was full of Jewish refugees seeking safe harbour. Upon the ship's forced return to Europe, it was estimated that 254 of those on board were later killed in Nazi concentration camps.
This situation has served as a key example of Canada’s anti-semitic policies in the mid 1900s. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has since apologized to the Jewish community for Canada's past and refusal of acceptance of the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St Louis.
These are just a few small pieces of Canada's history that are often forgotten, hidden, or not taught in schools. Another group that Canada has a negative history with is the Indigenous peoples of Canada. However, the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government is long and complicated, warranting so much more than a few paragraphs.