V. Population, Hierarchies and Social Attitudes

Population growth, racial delineations
and changes in social attitudes

“This assembly and, we are confident, all other British Columbia assemblies of the Native Sons and Native Daughters of Canada are entirely opposed to the enfranchisement of non-Caucasian races with the possible exception of such races born within Canada, and consider that such an act would be dangerous to Imperial sentiment and, eventually, to Imperial solidarity. “
W. A. MacDonald, Chairman, Vancouver Native Sons of Canada, February 26, 1923 (Van. Sun)

“Japanese boy, 8 years in Canada, Heads U.B.C. Oratorical Contest”
news item, March 11, 1923 (Van. Sun)

“The Chinese Immigration Act now proposed at Ottawa offends us far more than did the imposition of the Head Tax”
Peter Hem, 12 Canton Street, March 31, 1923 (Van. Sun)

“I beg to call your attention to the grave consequence and possible future complications that will surely result from the Chinese Immigration Act…Indirectly, are the Canadian people not undermining their own liberty by this act.”
Thomas Moore Whaun (aka Tung Mow Wong), July 2, 1923 (Van. Sun)

No Chinese Immigration to Canada in 12 months. 139 Japanese entered the Dominion in Year ending last March 31.”
news item, May 4, 1938 (Van. Sun)

“Out of the melting pot from a hundred different countries the citizenship of the North American continent, particularly of Canada, remains Anglo-Saxon in its intellectual power, inclination and general standards of life.”
“A Citizen,” May 23, 1938 (Van. Sun)

“Everyone [in Vancouver] is fast asleep and when you prick them, a Union Jack flows out of the hole”
Malcolm Lowry, writer, as in Geddes, p. 93


Cordova Street looking east from Cambie Street, 1893
Cordova Street looking east from Cambie Street, 1893.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [Str P301]

After Vancouver’s incorporation, Anglo-Scots from both Ontario and the British Isles flooded in on the CPR and soon outnumbered the existing, very diverse, largely sojourning population. [1] Riding on the coattails of Empire, this new mix brought with them the qualities and prejudices of the time, [2] setting the agenda for the next seventy five years. [3] During this time, however, there were subtle shifts of attention and loyalty, not the least of which was the reconsideration of previous unwavering support of things British sparked by the losses in the Battle of Ypres in April 1915.[4]

Chinese at Mission School, 1898
Chinese at Mission School, 1898. .
Image: Vancouver Public Library. [VPL 2449]

During WWI and into the 1920s, and partially fuelled by a robust American film and entertainment industry which transcended cultural and commercial protectionist barriers, Vancouver experienced a subtle shift away from the British Empire. For example, the American-based Ku Klux Klan briefly took root in the 1920s in the Anglo upper-class enclave of Shaughnessy, and at the University of BC eugenics[5] was actively discussed. From 1923, as part of a co-ordinated North American effort,[6] Chinese were denied entry as immigrants[7]. Paradoxically, while emulating styles from the US, the British stock hung tenaciously onto their old-world links that manifested themselves in a variety of institutions from housing styles to a Shakespeare garden in Stanley Park.

Shakespeare monument in Stanley Park

Shakespeare monument in Stanley Park

During the darkest days of the Depression of the 1930s, when immigration virtually stopped, migration drift from the Prairies reinforced a sense of Canadian and British values as did the post-WWII immigration from Europe. In the 1950s, with the British Empire on its last legs, British values lost some of their currency. The British, however, remained a social force until the 1960s, finding expression in political organization, mayors, councillors, the police department, street names, and the business community.


Japanese men in mourning sashes ride bicycles to the memorial service for King Edward VII, May 20, 1910
Japanese men in mourning sashes ride bicycles to the memorial service for King Edward VII, May 20, 1910.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [Mil P284.3]

As from 1923 most Asians were denied both entry and, until the 1940s, citizenship, those already in Canada had to rely on their own resources to survive. Nonetheless, they remained a strong part of the greater Vancouver narrative. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese already here[8] sustained the ethnic community. The Japanese centered their activities on Powell Street.[9] Those who had fought as a contingent during WWI were awarded full citizenship in 1931, but with the advent of Japan entering the war, they were interned in 1942[10] and were not allowed to return to the coast until 1949, when they were granted full citizenship. Those Punjabi Indians who were already in Vancouver found strength in their all-inclusive Sikh temple and worked in sawmills and in farming and food production.

KomagataMaru officials, July 1914
KomagataMaru officials, July 1914.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [CVA 7-128]

In the decade after WWII, large numbers of Europeans from war-ravaged Europe made their way to Vancouver (Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Italians and Greeks). Eastern Europeans also arrived; for example, in 1956 students from the Hungarian forestry school in Sopron made their way to Vancouver and added important expertise to the forestry program at the University of British Columbia. Czechs followed in the next decade.[11] During this time, there was a palpable drift away from an Anglo-centered society.

A gathering of the Gaelic society of Vancouver 1909 or 1910
A gathering of the Gaelic society of Vancouver 1909 or 1910.
Image: City of Vancouver Archives. [CVA 677-666]

While immigration rules were relaxing in the 1960s,[12] Asians, in addition to those who had been enfranchised since 1947 and 1949[13], began arriving in a maturing, more welcoming Vancouver. In the 1980s, fear of the return of Macao and Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China motivated increasing numbers of Chinese to seek peace and security in Vancouver. By the early 2000s, word had spread in the Chinese community that, because of its secure, ordered civilian population, strong banking system and a relatively easy path to citizenship, Vancouver was the new Switzerland, and immigration grew considerably. A decade later official Chinese and minority languages are seen and heard everywhere in the streets and in the broadcast media.[14]
Vancouver has become a meeting ground for East and West and their respective diasporas populating the city. These travelling cultures or “diasporic ethnicities”[15] have created new elites with their own expectations and have challenged the established Anglo order. However, in spite of competing hegemonies and pockets of solitudes, various groups within the city have shown a remarkable integration, including a substantial amount of intermarriage and participation in the city’s life as a whole, in stark contrast to the racial delineations of previous decades.

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Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Canadian-born soon outnumbered the British Columbia-born whose presence declined from 36.6 per cent in 1881 to 8.7 per cent in 1891. R. A. J. McDonald, Making Vancouver, 54.
  2. During WWI, large numbers of predominantly British Vancouverites willingly volunteered between 1914 and 1917 and under conscription from 1917-1918, all for King and Country.
  3. Participation in the army and the many subsequent militia units, particularly for the officer class, carried considerable social cachet right through until the 1960s.
  4. Kluckner, Vancouver, the way it was, 42.
  5. Eugenics is a bio-social movement evolving out of Social Darwinism that aimed to improve the genetic composition of a population.
  6. The US Immigration Act of 1924 excluded all classes of Chinese; the National Origins Act of 1924 entirely banned immigration to the US from Asia
  7. Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act of July 1, 1923, also known informally as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned all Chinese entry except merchants, diplomats, missionaries and foreign students.
  8. One example was successful businessman Yip Sang (aka Yip Chin Tien, 1845-1927).
  9. Powell Street sported “Japanese shops, hotels, boarding houses, restaurants and ice cream parlors, a language school and a community hall, Buddhist and Christian churches and a sandlot for sports.”Baker and Uranishi, in Davis, The Greater Vancouver Book, 312.
  10. The threat to Vancouver in 1939 and particularly 1941 was more palpable than in WWI. Possible strikes from Japanese from the sea and air were taken seriously. (Moogk, “Military and Civil Defences”in Davis, The Greater Vancouver Book, 272) Ferguson Point Battery, built in 1938, was to cover the boats in English Bay and gun emplacements at Point Grey would cover First Narrows. At their peak in 1942 “the Lower Mainland’s coastal batteries, from Steveston to Point Atkinson, were manned by 720 gunners, supported by infantry regiments and auxiliary units.”(Moogk, in Davis, 273) Citizens patrolled the streets to make sure black-out curtains were pulled and headlamps were painted blue, causing many head-on collisions.
  11. The horrors of WWII brought to a crashing end the idea of race as a determiner of worthiness. This was the beginning of a long process of reflection by the dominant Northern Europeans of recognizing, deconstructing and unlearning deeply embedded racism that had plagued Vancouver from its inception. It took two decades of reflection and incremental change for the dominant society to begin to accept the realities of multiculturalism.
  12. Major changes were made in Canadian immigration laws in 1963 and 1967.
  13. Chinese and south Asians were enfranchised in 1947, the Japanese in 1949.
  14. Cantonese is the most widely spoken but Mandarin is rapidly gaining ground. Toisanese is also a minority language in BC.
  15. James Clifford, ‘Travelling cultures’, in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P. Treichler, eds., Cultural studies, New York: Basic Books, 1973, 96-112 as cited in Ley’s “Between Europe and Asia,” 185. Also see Ley, “Between Europe and Asia.”