The Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was appointed to obtain proof that restricting Chinese immigration to Canada was in the best interest of the country. Approximately 15,000 Chinese labourers came to Canada in the 1880s to work on the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. While employers generally supported Chinese labour because it was cheap and reliable, many politicians, trade unionists and white residents of British Columbia resented the presence of the Chinese and called for anti-Chinese legislation to restrict their continued immigration. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald initially refused to introduce prohibitive regulations, recognizing the necessity of Chinese labour for the construction of the railway. However, as the railway neared completion and public dissatisfaction grew, Macdonald yielded to the pressure and appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the possibility of limiting Chinese immigration.
Commissioners J.A. Chapleau and J.H. Gray gathered testimony regarding Chinese immigration at public hearings across British Columbia throughout the summer of 1884, comparing it to evidence collected from the Pacific Coast of the United States. In total, 51 witnesses submitted testimony to the commission, including politicians, civil servants, lawyers, police officials, businessmen and labourers. The only Chinese witnesses consulted were two officials from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
Many witnesses reported that the Chinese were immoral, dishonest, unclean, prone to disease and incapable of assimilation, often basing their testimony on commonly held stereotypes rather than personal experience. Chinese communities were depicted as overcrowded and filthy with accusations of widespread gambling, prostitution and opium smoking. Others protested that the influx of Chinese workers created competition for white labour and prevented the immigration of more desirable white European immigrants. Support for Chinese immigration primarily came from entrepreneurs and employers seeking to derive economic benefits from cheap labour.
In the final report submitted in 1885, the commissioners determined that there was little evidence to support the claims made against Chinese immigrants. They stated that the Chinese were judged by unfair standards and subject to sweeping generalizations about their character and habits. Instances of crime, disease, prostitution and gambling were not more prevalent amongst the Chinese than in other ethnic communities, nor did their presence adversely affect white employment or immigration. Rather, the report suggested that Chinese immigration was generally beneficial as it provided essential labour in the development of industry in British Columbia.
Despite the lack of evidence to substantiate the threat of Chinese immigration, the final report recommended moderate legislation to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada. The commissioners concluded that the resentment and hostility harboured against the Chinese and the continued public demands for legislation made some restrictions advisable. Absolute exclusion of Chinese immigrants was not advised as it could negatively affect Canadian industry and potential trade partnerships with China. Instead, the commissioners proposed the imposition of a $10 duty on each Chinese person seeking entry into Canada.
Library and Archives Canada. Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. Report and Evidence, 1885.
- Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 94-95.
- Harry Con et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1982), 53.
- Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978), 39.
- Kelley and Trebilcock, 97.