Commentary by Justin Kong in Toronto
On June 22, members of the Chinese-Canadian community and allies gathered at Toronto City Hall to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Canadian government’s redress of the Chinese Head Tax and the 1923 Exclusion Act, legislations which had been used to prohibit Chinese immigration to Canada.
The mobilization for redress against these racist laws represented an important moment in Canadian history where a combination of Chinese community organization and political advocacy was able to secure a redress and apology from the federal government.
In other ways however, the redress remains incomplete. Most immediately, families of many Head Tax survivors have noted that their calls for an inclusive redress along the lines of "one certificate one claim" have gone unheeded.
As a consequence, only 1% of the 82,000 families directly affected by the Head Tax have been able to actually receive claims.
Redress is also incomplete in the sense the injustices faced by early Chinese and Asian migrants continue to prevail in today’s Canada.
Continued practice of economic exploitation of migrants
To recognize this failure is to understand that Chinese exclusion is not an isolated incident in Canadian history. It is a much longer and enduring practice in Canada where migrant labour is coveted, but the humanity and rights of those who provide that labour, denied.
The Chinese railroad worker, who has become etched into the national imaginary, exemplifies this practice. Conducting the most dangerous tasks that no white man was willing to do for the most meagre of wages, Chinese migrants built the railroad that brought the Canadian nation from conception to reality.
While the bodies of these migrant workers (estimates ranging from 600–1200) lined the railroad, Chinese migrants would continue to be denied citizenship.
Today, the exploitative relationship that constituted the experience of the Chinese railroad worker continues under new forms. Migrant workers now come to Canada from all over the world: Central America, the Caribbean and Asia.
These migrant workers are often bound to their employers, work in dangerous conditions, and denied protections and health care and — like the Chinese and Asian migrants of the past — denied status.
A commemoration of the legacy of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act must also be a commitment to standing with those that have followed in their footsteps: today's migrant workers. This means supporting their call for protections, and pivotally, their demand for status on arrival.
Head Tax history in immigrant communities
Asian exclusion and Head Tax were the legislative manifestation of a prevailing climate of racism, violence and economic exploitation, conditions which first confined Chinese migrants into Canada's very first Chinatowns.
Segregation created a disconnect between early migrant communities and the mainstream, with profound effects and enduring consequences for immigrant workers that persist to this day.
Nowhere is this more visible today than in the issue of labour law enforcement.
The findings of a recent report by the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which surveyed Chinese restaurant workers in Toronto, provides us with a glimpse of just how irrelevant labour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime) can often be for immigrant workers.
Such abject conditions are part and parcel, the legacy of Head Tax and Asian Exclusion.
Addressing the plight of immigrant workers means getting behind mobilizations such as The Fight for $15 and Fairness, which call for proactive enforcement, laws that protect workers, and a system that allows already marginalized immigrant workers to make employment violation claims.
Mobilizing upon the legacy of Head Tax and Asian exclusion
To commemorate the legacy of Head Tax, we must address the unmet demands of the families of Head Tax survivors, but also the struggles of the migrant farmworker, the Chinese restaurant worker, the Filipina careworker and the Tamil grocery store worker of today’s Canada.
This also means making a commitment to fight against the injustice faced by today's immigrant and migrant workers.
Organized labour in Canada, which was actually a key advocate of Asian exclusion, must not repeat the mistakes of the past; it must stand with migrant workers. Among other things this means making cross racial solidarity and anti-racism a core component of the labour movement. Such a direction represents the only path forward for a powerful labour movement in the 21st century.
When we connect the struggles of migrants past with the continued struggles of migrants and immigrants today, we break free of the isolation and insularity produced by a class-unconscious multiculturalism. In turn, we move towards a future of economic and racial justice for all.
Until this is achieved however we must tell Mr. Harper and all Canadians who believe these laws are part of the past, that there can be no 'turning of the page' on this chapter of Canada’s history.
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by Justin Kong in Toronto
While many Americans may be declaring their intent to immigrate to Canada if Donald Trump becomes President, this migratory trend towards the north is not a new phenomenon.
Historically, everyone from runaway slaves to draft dodgers and individuals of the LGBTQ community could be found among the different waves of American migrants coming to Canada. In more recent years, this flow has remained sizeable, with Americans being the sixth-largest source of immigrants in 2013.
Yet, Americans in Canada don’t fit most popular notions of immigrants and public discussions usually portray them as invisible immigrants or “expats.” They also appear to perform economically better than other immigrants, and many are also taking up key positions in the fields of arts, culture, and politics.
Higher cultural-economic capital
There is some belief that this stems from the fact that American immigrants have higher cultural-economic capital than other immigrants. A sector where this is particularly apparent is within Canada’s post-secondary education system.
Ongoing research on the changing landscape of academia in Canadian universities by PhD students at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Francois Lachapelle and Patrick John Burnett, has found that among Canada’s U3 universities (UBC, University of Toronto and McGill University) almost 66 per cent of tenured professors in 2015 were American-trained.
Rougher approximation tests conducted by Lachapelle suggest that half (33 per cent) of these are American immigrants.
Effects on Canadian academics
Rima Wilkes, who researches immigration at UBC, suggests looking back to the 1960s to understand the phenomenon of American academics in Canadian universities.
“[That was] when the Canadian university system saw a massive expansion,” she explains. “There weren’t enough Canadian-trained PhDs to fill the jobs. So it made sense to hire people from other countries [such as the U.S.] because we didn’t have the skills base.”
Wilkes notes that since then, however, Canadian universities have produced more and more PhD candidates. “So now [even though] we have the skill base, in some cases Canadians with PhDs still don’t get those [tenured] jobs.”
All of this is happening in a context where academic employment in both Canada and the U.S. is becoming more precarious. With the intensification of competition and fewer tenured and economically secure academic jobs in the U.S., aspiring American academics look abroad. Canadian institutions, such as the U3, have been eager to receive them.
Louise Birdsell Bauer, who researches precarity in academia at the University of Toronto, says that the preference of hiring American-trained academics stems “from institutional traditions combined with a growing inequality in prestige and training” between Canadian-trained and U.S.-trained academics.
These factors, Birdsell Bauer explains, do in fact contribute to the “increas[ing] academic precarity for Canadian-trained PhDs,” who face intensified competition with American-trained academic immigrants for these jobs.
'Colonial inferiority complex'
Other researchers say that the preference and prevalence of American academics in Canadian universities actually speaks to broader attitudes in Canadian academia.
Thomas Kemple is an immigrant from the United States. He has been a professor at UBC for more than two decades and now serves as an executive member of the UBC Faculty Association.
“In some ways, Canadian universities suffer from a kind of ‘colonial inferiority complex’ where ‘our own’ could never be quite as ‘excellent’ as academics produced in the U.S.,” he says. “We hear versions of this argument from deans and department heads who value degrees from certain U.S. universities over their Canadian counterparts, [and] often without checking the content and quality of the applicant.”
Unlike the experiences of many immigrants who come from regions such as Asia, Africa or Latin America who are unable to turn their credentials into positive labour market performance and economic well-being, academic immigrants from the U.S. sometimes experience the reverse.
Kemple says whether or not the prevalence of American academics in Canadian universities should be an issue of concern is something to think about.
“There has certainly been some discussion in recent years among faculty – but I’ve never heard it among administrators – about whether an affirmative action or diversity policy should be implemented for Canadian-born or Canadian-educated applicants for university positions.”
Wilkes similarly notes that she has seen some discussion around this trend stating “that it is often American-born or trained scholars who are leading this [discussion].”
There is some evidence to suggest that American academic immigrants in Canadian universities appear to be on the statistical upswing.
Lachapelle, who continues his research at UBC, is finding that amongst the U3 and many other Canadian universities there has actually been a “small, but statistically significant increase in the number of American academic immigrants in Canadian universities between 2008 and 2015.”
It seems American academics will continue to come to Canada, regardless of who becomes the next president of the United States.
by Jennifer Huang in Toronto
I recently read an article entitled “The New Chinese Working Class and the Canadian Left” by Justin Kong that reinvigorated a passion of mine – organizing immigrant workers.
As Kong puts it, “the conditions for an immigrant left are ripe in the Chinese community.”
Having spent the last four years working as an organizer with the Toronto & York Region Labour Council trying to organize Chinese union workers, you can understand my excitement when I read Kong’s article.
Yes, you read correctly – I wasn’t organizing Chinese workers into unions; rather I was organizing “the already organized.”
Much like Kong observed, the Chinese community was – and is – very much unengaged with the Canadian left. Looking around, I could see that there were in fact many Chinese Canadians who were union members, but did not self-identify as such.
Building trade union consciousness
At the Labour Council, we developed the Chinese Workers’ Network where we went around asking local unions to identify Chinese union members from within their ranks.
We invited these members to Chinese-language events where we did education work about the importance of unions, explained and de-mystified union structures and celebrated the many gains that the labour movement has achieved for Canada (debunking the myth that Canada is a benevolent country with good social programs that no one really had to struggle for).
Last I checked, we had over 500 people identified on our database as Chinese. We developed a committee who would translate articles about workers’ struggles into Chinese, and put these up on our website.
Even with the limited resources we had to dedicate towards this initiative, we’ve had tremendous success.
Perhaps the best example was when one group of Chinese workers contacted us to help them organize a union. One hundred per cent of the workers voted for a union, but listening to the stories about their employer’s outrageous abuse and violation of human rights, I knew that our organizing efforts were not enough.
Engaging new immigrant workers
What we began at the Labour Council was only one side of a two-pronged approach. We need to continue this mobilizing externally into the community where workers are already organized – in their faith groups, community associations, sites of recreation and leisure, etc.
While I was working as an adult literacy instructor, some of my students found part-time work as community health ambassadors.
These students were specifically recruited because their first language was not English, so while they were trained in English to deliver health-related topics, they were expected to organize members in their own communities (using their own social networks) to deliver these workshops in their mother tongues.
As I witnessed the effectiveness of this model at the time, I wondered why unions couldn’t adopt a similar community approach with many of the new immigrant workers?
These workshops would be advantageous not only to the worker learning about his/her rights, but could also offer an array of tips to unions about where organizing efforts should be focused.
If the Canadian labour movement is to survive and actually grow, all unions should be dedicating resources to develop a political left within immigrant communities – and towards the goal of organizing workers into unions.
Central labour bodies in each region need to take a hard look to see which non-English speaking communities are their largest demographic, and recognize not all communities of colour are recent immigrants – some have been in Canada for a long time.
Organizing Chinese immigrant workers
There is a good opportunity right now to organize a left within Chinese immigrant workers, but we need leadership and more resources from all parts of organized labour to do this.
Workers in the Chinese diaspora, who are underpaid and undervalued, often feel that they have no choice, but to accept their working conditions; otherwise they face unemployment or self-employment. They feel that they lack the language skills to find employment in the Canadian mainstream, or seek help to remedy their situation.
It is precisely because workers find themselves in these situations of precariousness that the labour movement has an opportunity to engage them. To not do so is to our detriment.
Our prolonged absence in any form of sustained engagement with the Chinese immigrant working class has already begun to bolster the ranks of the political right. With Jason Kenney at the helm, the Conservatives have done a wonderful job of convincing Chinese Canadians they are watching out for their best interests.
Kong puts it best: “If we look throughout Canada’s history, we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white men has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.”
A labour movement that is inclusive needs to create – and sustain – a welcoming space for all workers regardless of language, race, religion or accent. It is my hope to continue the discussion of how we might engage Chinese immigrant workers – but more broadly, all immigrant workers.
A child-immigrant herself, Jennifer Huang worked as an organizer at the Toronto & York Region Labour Council where she spearheaded the Chinese Workers’ Network (CWN). Its success spurred the creation of the other workers’ networks – Filipino, Tamil and Somali.
by Justin Kong in Toronto
The results of the recent federal election shows that we need a better understanding of how immigrant groups are mobilized and integrated into formal spheres of Canadian politics. This two-part series focuses on the Chinese community in metropolitan areas of Canada. Part II examines the new Chinese working class, how conditions are ripe for the development of a Chinese left and what this all means for the Canadian left.
With the devastating electoral defeat of the New Democratic Party last month in the 2015 Federal Elections, it’s clear that the Canadian left must adjust their strategy. The new strategy needs to support the development of a progressive, grassroots immigrant power to counter the presence of more conservative and moderate elements within these communities.
In the Chinese diaspora, while there are a number of strong progressive leaders at various levels of government and in the community at large, the presence of a mobilized, grassroots Chinese immigrant left has yet to be felt in recent years.
This lies partly in the fact that one group has long been unengaged: the Chinese immigrant working class.
New wave of Chinese immigrants, new attitudes towards labour
Contrary to the common trope of the rich Chinese investor immigrant, one merely has to look around the many Chinese ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto and Vancouver to see that there are actually tremendous populations of workers labouring in the ethnic economy. These workers are often engaged in the food and services industry in precarious conditions and without the full protection of employment laws and standards.
This population has long been here and has remained relatively unengaged by the mainstream left and organized labour. A small group find themselves in the progressive political spaces of community labour organizations such as the Workers Action Centre in Toronto.
What has changed in recent years, however, is the composition of this Chinese working class and the increasing maturity of the Chinese diaspora in Canada. These two conditions have important ramifications for the possibility of a progressive Chinese element and the Canadian left at large.
In the past two decades the flow of Chinese immigrants, which had previously been largely dominated by those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, has shifted to a flow that is increasingly dominated by those from mainland China.
Given that immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have likely been here for a longer period of time it is more likely that they have attained more upward mobility with less ‘working class’ members. More importantly these groups have radically different pre-migration attitudes towards the left and labour politics than the new wave from China.
In Hong Kong, family histories of communist persecution, the infamous 1967 riots which linked trade unionism with social instability and communist insurgency, combine to stifle the possibility of broad labour politics amongst the Hong Kong populace. It should be no surprise then that Canadian labour politics will find it difficult to engage this group.
On the other hand, the new Chinese immigrant working class is largely composed of skilled professionals from mainland China who grew up in very different conditions. Growing up and living in Mainland China means this group has at the very least a basic understanding of concepts of class, capitalism and exploitation — important preconditions to any progressive and labour politics.
With the economic rise of China and the proliferation of consumer culture, leftist politics may have had little salience amongst this population when they were still living in China.
After immigrating the situation becomes different. Labouring in the deskilling, dehumanizing and precarious Canadian economy reignites in the Chinese worker the earlier internalizations of working class consciousness and left politics.
Due to these factors, this new Chinese working class, more than any previous Chinese wave, has the potential to constitute a progressive, left element within the Chinese diaspora in Canada.
Bridging the ethnic and the mainstream
As waves upon waves of Chinese immigrants have settled in Canada, the Chinese diaspora as a whole has become increasingly mature. This maturity manifests in an increasing number of potential progressive political leaders who are able to connect the mainstream with the ethnic.
These two developments together represent the fertile conditions for the development of a left grassroots counter presence in the Chinese community. In the absence of sustained engagement, this new Chinese working class may remain inactive in formal politics and quite possibly bolster the ranks of the political right and moderates.
Chinese churches, for example, appear to be making in-roads with this new Chinese working class. Grounded in the ethnic community through their ‘service’, Chinese churches in Toronto have initiated sermons and fellowship groups catered specifically to Chinese restaurant workers. For the left, such a development is illustrative of the extensive vacuum that exists.
If we look throughout Canada’s history we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.
In order for the Canadian left to establish a foothold in immigrant communities for electoral struggles or otherwise, the establishment of grassroots strength within these communities is essential. To do this the immigrant working classes and political leadership of immigrant communities must be mobilized and connected with the mainstream left.
By supporting and building the emerging immigrant left is to reverse the decades of decline of the Canadian left. The conditions for an immigrant left is ripe in the Chinese community and it may likely be the case in other immigrant communities as well. All that remains for us to do is to come together and figure out how we can make it a reality — and that, of course, is the hard part.
Justin Kong studies sociology and is involved with community and labour organizing in Toronto.
by Justin Kong in Toronto
Political discourse often speaks to the social conservatism of immigrant groups. However, the results of the recent federal elections show that we need a better understanding of how immigrant groups are mobilized and integrated into formal spheres of Canadian politics. This two-part series focuses on the Chinese community in metropolitan areas of Canada. Part I explores the role of churches in helping to integrate Chinese Canadians and how that might lead to conservative politics.
Despite the sweeping defeat of the Conservatives by Trudeau’s Liberals throughout the suburban areas of Vancouver and Toronto (the very same ridings that enabled a Conservative victory in 2008 and 2011) in last week’s election, it would be a mistake to think that the Conservative influence in these communities has come to an end.
When the Conservative party took out ads in certain ethnic Chinese media suggesting the Liberal party would legalize brothels, open drug injection sites and make marijuana more accessible to children, it was a targeted and informed choice. Spend some time in any of the Chinese Christian megachurches in Richmond, Vancouver or Scarborough, Toronto and you will often find the very same issues raised.
In fact, if we look at regions where the Conservatives did retain seats in metropolitan Vancouver and Toronto (such as Richmond Centre, South Surrey-White Rock and Markham-Unionville) we do find they are areas with large numbers of Chinese Christians.
The important role of Chinese churches
To understand the strong support for Conservative politics and the party amongst the Chinese community in metropolitan Canada, we need to understand Chinese Christian churches.
While the first Chinese Christian church in Canada can be dated to the early 1900s, it was with the wave of Hong Kong immigrants in the 1970-80s that we began to see the rapid growth of Chinese Christian churches in metropolitan areas such as Vancouver and Toronto.
The demographics (middle class, professionals) and political dispositions of this Hong Kong immigrant flow inevitably influenced the politics that are reproduced within these churches.
At the same time, Chinese Christian churches have and continue to be an institution of unparalleled importance within the Chinese diaspora. These churches are vital hubs of community that help facilitate the integration of new immigrants. They also offer social services to seniors, new immigrants and international students that are increasingly important in the context of recent cutbacks to immigrant and community services.
The recent anti-sex education movement in Ontario is supported by many churches and the Chinese Christian community. These sentiments are richly detailed in this portrait of one of the leading Chinese organizers.
In this and other ways, there exists a connection between Chinese Christian churches as institutions that integrate newcomers to Canada and as institutions where political-social conservatism is reproduced and concentrated.
Of course, the Chinese Christian community is not a monolith; it’s a complex, changing group with its own internal differences and disagreements. What is highlighted by the Ontario sex-ed debacle and the Chinese Christian opposition is that most vocal and politically active element of this community does tend towards conservatism.
It should not be surprising that this Christian conservatism has found an easy affinity with the Conservative party, who has tried to leverage the grassroots strength of the Chinese Christian churches for electoral gain by running candidates with church affiliations.
To acknowledge all of this, however, is not to find in Chinese immigrants some innate, unchanging ‘conservatism’, but to illustrate the class biases of the immigration system and how immigrants during the process of immigration and through institutions like churches have become mobilized to become ‘conservative’ in the context of life in Canada.
Part Two of this series turns to a discussion of the new Chinese working class, how contemporary conditions are ripe for the development of a Chinese left and what this means for the Canadian left.
Justin Kong studies sociology and is engaged with community and labour groups in Toronto.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit