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The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885
(plus amendments: 1887, 1892, 1900, 1903)

Following the recommendations published in the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration in 1885, the federal government passed a bill to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act imposed a duty of $50 on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada, a significant increase from the $10 duty recommended by the commission. This became the first piece of Canadian legislation to exclude immigrants on the basis of their ethnic origin.[1]

The only Chinese individuals exempted from the entrance fee were diplomats, government representatives, tourists, merchants, “men of science” and students. Vessels carrying Chinese immigrants to Canada were only permitted to transport one Chinese person for every fifty tons of the ship’s total weight. In comparison, ships transporting European immigrants were authorized to carry one person for every two tons of the ship’s total weight. The act also reflected a preoccupation with the health and morality of Chinese individuals, denying entry to any Chinese immigrant found to be suffering from leprosy or an infectious disease, as well as any Chinese woman known to be a prostitute.

Amendments to the act in 1887 expanded the list of individuals exempted from the duty. Chinese women married to non-Chinese men were considered the same nationality as their husbands and therefore excused from the fee, as were Chinese individuals passing through Canada via railway. An additional amendment in 1892 required every Chinese resident of Canada wishing to temporarily leave the country to register with an immigration official prior to their departure.

The implementation of the duty only temporarily reduced the number of Chinese immigrants arriving in Canada. Continued economic growth in British Columbia created a demand for labour, and by the 1890s, Chinese immigrants were once again arriving in Canada by the thousands. Increased Chinese immigration intensified the demands for more stringent regulations against the Chinese. The government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier responded by introducing the Chinese Immigration Act of 1900, raising the entrance duty to $100 per person.[2] This increase did little to deter Chinese immigration and levels remained as high as they had been in previous years. By 1903, the number of Chinese arriving in Canada on an annual basis had grown to 5,000.[3] It was not until the government raised the duty to $500 per person in 1903 that immigration to Canada became prohibitive for most Chinese individuals. With cheap Chinese labour in short supply following 1903, some Canadian labour contractors found it worthwhile to advance money to Chinese immigrants to facilitate their entrance into Canada.[4] By 1907, Chinese immigration was once again increasing. The interests of business and industry continued to exert considerable influence over the flow of immigration despite the implementation of restrictive immigration policies.[5]

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

Statutes of Canada. An Act of Respecting and Regulating Chinese Immigration into Canada, 1885. Ottawa: SC 48-49 Victoria, Chapter 71

Amendment 1887

Statutes of Canada. An Act to Amend “The Chinese Immigration Act,” 1887. Ottawa: SC 50-51 Victoria, Chapter 35

Amendment 1892

Statutes of Canada. An Act to further Amend “The Chinese Immigration Act,” 1892. Ottawa: SC 55-56 Victoria, Chapter 25

Amendment 1900

Statutes of Canada. An Act Respecting and Restricting Chinese Immigration, 1900. Ottawa: SC 63-64 Victoria, Chapter 32

Amendment 1903

Statutes of Canada. An Act Respecting and Restricting Chinese Immigration, 1903. Ottawa: SC 3 Edward VII, Chapter 8

  1. Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 107.
  2. Jin Tan and Patricia E. Roy, The Chinese in Canada (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1985), 8.
  3. Harry Con et al., From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1982), 83-84.
  4. Tan and Roy, 8.
  5. Con et al., 84.