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The Most Discriminatory Laws in Canadian History

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Political columnist John Ivison reacted to the proposed Quebec Charter of Values with an edifying question, or perhaps it was a rhetorical comment on the severity of the uneven bill.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for the historically illiterate to delve into the Canadian folklore, lead by Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney who, this week, inaugurated a similarly-themed exhibit in Banff. The exhibit entitled "Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Canada's First World War Internment Operations 1914-1920" commemorates the thousands of Canadians who were taken prisoner by their own country during the First World War.

The 8,500 civilian prisoners, most of Ukrainian descent, were arrested and held in internment camps only because they were originally from Eastern Europe.

Kenney said the event is something he recalls with "sadness and some shame."

Québec's credo is "Je me souviens", which loosely translates to "I will remember". But there is never a bad time to appropriate this mantra in the rest of Canada, to understand where we've come from and appreciate how far we've come as the world's first nation to adopt a federal multiculturalism policy. To that end, here are some low-lights of Canadian history. Lest they be forgotten by Mr. Ivison:

  1. Aboriginal Disenfranchisement: In colonial times Aboriginals were denied the vote. Following Confederation, Aboriginals could vote on the condition they give up their treaty rights and status under the Indian Act. The conditional voting restriction for First Nations was removed in 1960.
  2. Enslavement of Africans: During Canada's early periods of French and British colonial rule, slave trading and slavery were lawful.
  3. The Chinese head tax. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. All immigrants from China were asked to pay $50 per person upon entering the country. The fee eventually rose to $500 per person in 1903. No other group was targeted in this way (until the privilege was extended to Black Americans).
  4. In 1890, Manitoba makes English the only official language in the Province, despite the protests of French-Canadians who had first settled the territory. The Manitoba Legislature systematically eradicated the bilingual nature of the province over the next 25 years by de-funding (French)-Catholic schools, then later removing French instruction rights all together.
  5. Forbidding immigration from India (1906): The restriction of immigration from the Orient, in particular British East Indians: "Experience has shown that immigrants of this class, having been accustomed to the conditions of a tropical climate, are wholly unsuited to this country".
  6. Ban on Black immigrants (1911): African-Americans trying to enter Canada there were strict regulations on health, literacy, and financial support. These regulations were set up on the assumption that most African-Americans would never meet them and thus would not be allowed to enter the country. When a party of 200 Blacks, adhering to all rules, arrived in Manitoba in 1911, the federal government decided to ban black immigrants outright.
  7. In 1912, the Ontario government attempted to force the assimilation of Franco-Ontarians by banning French language in francophone schools. One might say the measure was intended to impose dominant British-language values to a minority group.
  8. Indian Residential Schools (1920): The Canadian government developed a policy called "aggressive assimilation" to be taught at church-run, government-funded residential schools. Attendance was mandatory and federal agents ensured all native children attended. In all, about 150,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the boarding schools.
  9. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1923). Following a 1914 judgement in the Court of Appeal which stipulated "[Asiatic] customs are not in vogue and their adherence to them here only gives rise to disturbances destructive to the well being of society", the Chinese workers who had, with their bare hands and for half the pay of white workers, built Canada's economic gateway were formally excluded from immigrating Canada.
  10. The Person's Case. Until 1929, the legal definition of a person excluded females. If women were not legally persons, then they had no rights.
  11. Internment of Italian-Canadians: There were 26 internment camps in Canada during World War II. Italian-Canadian men were interned in three of them. German-Canadians were also interned.
  12. The Colour Bar in the Canadian Forces. In 1939, recruits to the Royal Canadian Navy had to be "of pure European descent and of the white race." The Royal Canadian Air Force demanded candidates who were "British subjects and of pure European descent."
  13. Internment of Japanese-Canadians: Within days of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Canadian Pacific Railways fired all its Japanese workers, and most other industries followed suit. Japanese fishermen in British Columbia were ordered to stay in port, and 1,200 fishing boats were seized by the Canadian navy. The movement of 23,000 Japanese Canadians during the war the largest mass exodus in Canadian history. After the war, the federal government forced all Japanese-Canadians out of British Columbia.
  14. Civil Rights for the Coloured. In 1936, Fred Christie was refused service in the Montreal Forum on account of his race. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. He lost. In 1940, the Supreme Court of Canada did not find the "no service for coloreds" rule to be "contrary to good morals or public order".
    In 1943, Ontario-native Hugh Burnett wrote to federal Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent, informing him that even in uniform, a black man could not be served in any Dresden, Ontario restaurant. He was shocked to receive a reply from the Deputy Minister stating that racial discrimination was not illegal in Canada.
  15. Voting Rights for Visible Minorities (1948): Chinese-Canadians and Indo-Canadians were excluded from voting until 1947. Japanese-Canadians had to wait another year.
  16. Racially segregated schools: the last segregated Black school in Ontario was closed in 1965. The last segregated school in Canada, which was in Nova Scotia, closed in 1983.

In remembering those who survived state-sanctioned brutality, humiliation and discrimination, Canadians can appreciate the strength and resilience of those who, despite everything, still pledge allegiance to the Canadian flag.