The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was passed by the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in response to continued demands for more prohibitive regulations to limit Chinese immigration. Commonly referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” the legislation virtually restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada by narrowly defining the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants.
Existing immigration policy requiring Chinese immigrants to pay an entrance duty of $500 did not limit Chinese immigration as much as desired, nor did it fully satisfy nativist and racist opinions. Calls for the complete cessation of Chinese immigration originated in British Columbia, but received broad support from across Canada. White hostility against the Chinese increased in the postwar period as poor economic conditions were regularly blamed on visible minorities. Anti-Asian sentiment was further stimulated by the frequency of Chinese immigration fraud. Loopholes in the existing legislation allowed Chinese students, farmers and merchants to enter Canada without having to define their qualifications. Chinese labourers took advantage of this ambiguity, classifying themselves as students and merchants in order to receive an exemption from the entrance duty.
With the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, all other legislation relating to Chinese immigration was repealed, including the entrance duty requirements. However, the new regulations specified that only four classes of Chinese immigrants would be allowed in Canada: diplomats and government representatives; children born in Canada who had left for educational or other purposes; merchants as defined by the minister of immigration and colonization; and students while attending university or college. Vessels transporting Chinese immigrants were only authorized to carry one Chinese immigrant for every 250 tons of the ship’s total weight. Chinese individuals already in Canada were required to register and carry photo identification as evidence of their compliance with the regulations of the act; even Canadian born and naturalized Chinese were made to register.
The new immigration act passed into law on 1 July 1923, coinciding with Dominion Day celebrations commemorating the anniversary of Canadian Confederation. The Chinese community referred to this day as “Humiliation Day” and refused to participate in Dominion Day celebrations for many years to come.
The legislation proved to be extremely effective in restricting Chinese immigration. It is estimated that between 1923 and 1946 when the law was finally repealed, only 15 Chinese immigrants were accepted into Canada. The virtual cessation of Chinese immigration significantly impacted the Chinese community in Canada. Wives and children of Chinese men already in Canada were not permitted to immigrate and the lack of Chinese women in Canada limited the opportunity for the community’s natural growth. Many older men retired to China after the passage of the act, and during the Great Depression, unemployed Chinese were encouraged to return to China. As the population declined, it was predicted by some that Chinese communities in Canada would eventually disappear.
Library and Archives Canada. Statutes of Canada. An Act Respecting Chinese Immigration, 1923. Ottawa: SC 13-14 George V, Chapter 38
- Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978), 132.
- Harry Con et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1982), 131, 137-138.
- Patricia Roy, The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-1941 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003), 57; Con et al., 136.
- Roy, 76.
- Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 204.
- Con et al., 148.