In 1751, Christian Finck left Rotterdam aboard the SS Gale, landing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to begin a new life. He was 35 years old, a smith by trade, and had come to Canada at the behest of the British, as part of the wave of foreign Protestants brought over from Germany to pledge allegiance to the Crown.
My ancestor is the reason everyone on my mother’s side of the family is here. Like so many Canadians, I’m here because of immigration.
It’s easy to think of Canada as a place that has always welcomed foreigners, that we are more tolerant of those who don’t look like us.
So last night’s viewing of The Lost Years at the Vernon Town Cinema was a wake-up call. A beautifully told story of Chinese immigration to Canada, as well as to the United States, Australia and New Zealand, the film is a tribute to the early Chinese immigrants who left all they knew to begin a new life on Gold Mountain, so called because of the gold rush.
But when they packed their meagre belongings and left their families behind in their ancestral villages to come to Canada, I wonder if they had any idea what they were letting themselves in for. Appalling living conditions, status as second-class citizens, racism and fear that was based, as always, on ignorance.
Like many Canadians, I was already familiar with the story, but to see it on the big screen, told by those who lived it, and by their descendants, was a moving experience.
Filmmakers Kenda Gee and Tom Radford spent 12 years making the film, travelling around the world to hear stories, culminating in a visit by Gee and his father to his father’s ancestral village in China. The Lost Years should be required viewing for all Canadians. While the story of three generations of Gee’s own family is at the heart of the film, it is really the story of thousands of Chinese families.
Watching the film, I wonder at the resilience and determination of people who left all they knew to come to a place where they weren’t welcome, yet were put to good use in building the railroad, thousands of them losing their lives. But as soon as the CPR was completed, the government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese to Canada. So men who had planned to be here only a few years, or who planned to bring over their wives and children suddenly found themselves in a country where they weren’t wanted, separated forever from their families. Legislated racism took the form of a Head Tax imposed, with few exceptions, on every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. By 1903, the Head Tax was $500, the equivalent of two years’ wages for a Chinese labourer. Meanwhile, Chinese were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the government collected $23 million from the Head Tax.
It’s easy, as Canadians, to feel a certain smugness: “Hey, we didn’t have slavery,” as they did in the U.S. Well, maybe not in the same sense. But one only has to look at our truly appalling treatment of our own First Nations people, or the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War to know that we are just as capable as everyone else at reducing our own citizens to “the enemy.”
The film had people cheering during certain sections: Vernon’s own star hockey player Larry Kwong, featured prominently in the film and in attendance and speaking to the audience at Wednesday night’s world premiere. And applause for another of the film’s stars, Gim Wong, who eagerly signed up to enlist during the Second World War, joining the RCAF.
The son of two Head Tax payers, Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown and is a proud veteran who fought for the freedom we now enjoy. But he was considered an alien by the Canadian government, and wasn’t allowed to vote until after the Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1947.
Why was my ancestor welcomed to this country, while thousands of Chinese immigrants were not? Is it the old story: you fear what you don’t know?
Of course, we know this kind of fear-based racism goes on today — around the world and here at home — but it’s this country’s multiculturalism, its diversity of languages, traditions and people whose skin, hair and features differ from our own, that makes all of us richer.
The Lost Years reminds us once again that by forgetting the past we are condemned to repeat it.
—Katherine Mortimer is the lifestyles editor for The Morning Star…