In 1870, BC was still an independent colony in the British Empire. The colony joined the Canadian federation based on Article 13 that consolidated a specific regime of racial power in BC based on the repudiation of First Nations as people, outright rejection of any notion of Aboriginal title, and sustained opposition to negotiation of treaties. On the other hand, Article 14 called for an elected provincial legislature that seemed on the surface to be a positive step away from the tight colonial clique that had ruled in the name of the Queen.1 As it turned out, however, BC’s 1872 legislation on voting marked a radical turning point whereby white power and privilege came to be institutionalized in an unprecedented manner.
Despite decades of colonial control and the ravages of disease, First Nations in the province and racialized peoples (Chinese, Black, and mixed-race peoples) were by far the majority, numbering around 40,000 compared to fewer than 10,000 Europeans.2 The small group of 25 white, male legislators elected in 1871 were anxious to expand their electoral support since voting regulations restricted voting only to propertied men who were literate. Enlarging the number of voters brought up the question of race. In the legislative debate on removing the literacy and property requirements, one legislator expressed his fears succinctly: “We might, after next election, see an Indian occupying the Speaker’s Chair, or have a Chinese majority in the House.”3 The legislators resolved their racial anxiety by removing the literacy and property qualifications (expanding the number of voters) on the one hand, and then inserted a special clause (article 13): “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to extend to or include or apply to Chinese and Indians.”4 In passing this election law, the legislators allowed white men, regardless of property or literacy levels, to vote but then disenfranchised more than 80 percent of the people of the province, including all women.
Few histories of BC fully explore the details or implications of this legislation. Just after the US Civil War, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed that African American voting rights could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”5 To put it plainly, BC legislators approved and imposed this racist, legal statute at a time when the federal and state governments in the US had specifically prohibited such an act. In effect, BC’s white legislators had, by denying the rights of citizenship to First Nations and Chinese, turned back the clock to implement racist laws not dissimilar to the legal prohibitions imposed on African Americans during slavery. BC had become a province like no other.
The story does not end there. Some people may look back at this period and surmise that it was just the way things were, “everyone was racist back then.” In fact, there were objections to the legislation even at the time. The then premier of the province, J.F. McCreight, refused for the bill to be proclaimed into law because it seemed wrong to limit voting based on “nationality, race or colour,” it contravened imperial instructions to avoid limiting the rights of non-Europeans in a way that violated international treaties, and it violated federal jurisdiction over Indigenous affairs when the “Indian population of the province amounted to 50,000 souls.”6
Stalled by McCreight, the act was forwarded to the federal government, where it was examined by none other than John A. Macdonald, who with the deputy minister of justice, dismissed McCreight’s objections.7 The bill received royal assent that October.8 Macdonald and the federal government had acted decisively to bolster white supremacy on the Pacific. In the words of the Daily Colonist, the new law “brings within the pale of the electoral franchise every bona fide resident British subject who takes the trouble to register. It also, by explicit words, excludes Indians and Chinese. Here, indeed, is a great and important victory for the liberal party in the House.”9
This domination of a white minority would continue for the next 70 years, with citizens of Japanese and South Asian descent added to the list of excluded others in 1895 and 1907, respectively.10 White women won the right to vote in 1917, but Indigenous and Asian Canadian men and women remained disenfranchised.
The ban on voting, extended to both municipal and federal spheres, had dire consequences – racialized people had little means to exert electoral pressure on politicians to change the laws or to stop further racist laws from being passed. The ban also meant First Peoples and Asian Canadians could not obtain certification to practise in professions such as law or to serve as a school trustee. In subsequent years, the BC legislature passed hundreds of racist laws or regulations discriminating against First Nations or Asian Canadians.11 It also pressured the federal government to ban or limit immigration from Asia, ensuring that the white minority would eventually become the white majority.
Many people in this province are aware of the civil rights movement in the United States yet few are aware of the civil rights movement in this province. Asian Canadians fought hard to assert their right to vote.
Tomekichi Homma, a naturalized British subject, walked into a polling booth in 1900 and asked to be placed on the voter’s list. His was a deliberate act to challenge the provincial legislation that read: “No Chinaman, Japanese, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District, or be entitled to vote at any election.” He was refused. With the support of the community, Homma challenged the matter in court. Both the county court and Supreme Court in BC ruled in his favour. The BC Government refused to accept the decisions, appealing to the Privy Council in London. BC’s attorney-general of the day, D.M. Eberts, argued: “Even if they exercised the franchise properly, it is intolerable that these foreign races, which can never be assimilated with our population, should in many constituencies determine who shall represent the people in the legislature.” The British Privy Council agreed with Eberts, arguing that voting was a privilege, not a right, and that voting could be denied to Japanese or Chinese Canadians just as it was denied to women.
The Story of Tomekichi Homma | bit.ly/3nH0xqc
Won Alexander Cumyow, a Chinese Canadian activist and lawyer who the provincial bar association refused to licence, also demanded the right to vote in 1902.12 Husain Rahim, a newcomer from South Asia, challenged the ban against South Asians voting in 1911 and faced persecution for his efforts.13 Japanese Canadian veterans who had fought in World War I petitioned for the right to vote in 1920 but a coalition of white veterans and women’s groups mobilized to defeat the measure. A small number of Japanese Canadian veterans finally won the right to vote in 1931.
In 1936, second-generation Japanese Canadians (Nisei) formed the Japanese Canadian Citizens League and, with the support of Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) Member of Parliament Angus MacInnis, sent a delegation to Ottawa to press the Elections and Franchise Acts Committee of Parliament for the right to vote. Despite an eloquent presentation of their case, the committee rebuffed their request.
In 1939, Dr. D.P. Pandia, an Indian lawyer and former secretary to Gandhi, worked with communities to successfully lobby Ottawa for an amnesty for undocumented newcomers. Kapoor Singh Siddoo, Mayo Singh, and Kartar Singh Hundal enlisted the assistance of H.S.L. Polak, a long-time associate of Gandhi, to bring pressure for the right to vote.14
(Dis)Enfranchisement, 1907–1947: The Forty-Years Struggle for the Vote, an exhibit of the South Asian Studies Institute, University of the Fraser Valley | www.southasiancanadianheritage.ca/the-vote
During the war, many First Peoples and Asian Canadians joined the Canadian military, and community organizations organized again to press for the vote. Others, however, took the stance that they would not fight if they could not vote.
Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society | ccmms.ca
A twelve-person delegation, including Naginder Singh Gill and other leaders of the Khalsa Diwan Society, Vancouver; Sir Robert Holland of Victoria; Harold Winch of the CCF; and Harold Pritchett, district president of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), met with Premier John Hart in March 1943 to argue for the right to vote. Also attending were World War I veterans Phagan Singh and G.S. Badall. Despite demonstrating their support for the war effort in the form of several hundred thousand dollars in war bonds, Hart refused to act.
Veterans from the war had a strong case – if they were good enough to die for their country, surely they were good enough to vote!15
For many years, activists from Chinese Canadian communities in Vancouver and Victoria had been lobbying for the right to vote. Under the umbrella of the Chinese Canadian Association, Low Kwong Joe (Joseph Hope) of Victoria, and Foon Sien Wong, Andrew Lam, Ann Chinn, Velma Chen, Esther Fung, Henry Lee, Joseph Leong, and Gordon Cumyow in Vancouver, took up the fight and organized petitions and sent delegations to lobby the BC government in the 1940s. Increasingly, Chinese Canadian leaders began to coordinate their efforts with the South Asian community. By then the IWA had hired Roy Mah and Darshan Singh Sangha as union organizers.
Velma Chen was a member of a seven-person Chinese Canadian Association delegation that met with the BC premier and cabinet in early 1945 to press for the right to vote. The delegation submitted a petition and written statement demanding the right to vote, pointing out that Chinese Canadians “are not allowed to vote in municipal, provincial or federal elections. They are denied employment in public services and are barred from practising law and pharmacy.” Chan was an activist in the BC labour movement as well as in Vancouver’s Chinatown. She was a part owner of China Arts and Crafts, a centre for China-Canada friendship in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the legislature, CCF members introduced motions to put an end to the racist legislation but faced serious opposition.
In 1946, Asian Canadians and Native Brotherhood representatives appeared before the BC Elections Act Committee and pressure mounted for the right to vote after the war.
Frank Arthur Calder was born in Nass Harbour, Nisga’a territory on August 3, 1915. He died November 4, 2006, in Victoria, BC. Frank Calder was the first Indigenous member of the BC legislature, elected in 1949. Calder is best known for his role in the Nisga’a Tribal Council’s Supreme Court case against the province of British Columbia (commonly known as the Calder case), which demonstrated that Aboriginal title (i.e., ownership) to traditional lands exists in modern Canadian law.19
Finally, after decades of pressing for the right to vote, the provincial government conceded and began to enfranchise Asian Canadian men and women beginning with Canadians of South Asian and Chinese heritage in April 1947.20 Even then the legislature inserted a language qualification for voting, an impediment that was not removed until 1980. In 1949, the BC legislature finally conceded the right to vote provincially for Japanese Canadians and First Nations.21 Similar efforts at the municipal level finally led to enfranchisement at that level. First Nations only won the right to vote federally in 1960.
Politician, feminist, writer, educator, lecturer, and mother, Rosemary Brown has contributed much to BC and Canada, including being the first Black woman elected to a Canadian provincial legislature (BC). Brown ran for the leadership of the federal NDP Party in 1975. Some of her many awards include: United Nations, Human Rights Fellowship (1973); Government of British Columbia, Order of British Columbia (1995); Government of Canada, Order of Canada ; and Canadian Labour Congress, Award for Outstanding Service to Humanity (2002). Since her death in 2003, the Rosemary Brown Award for Women was established and is awarded annually to recognize and honour a BC-based woman or organization that promotes the values and ideals that Rosemary Brown championed.
The movement for civil and democratic rights did not end with the winning of the franchise but has continued in the fight for human and democratic rights. This includes the movement for decolonization, for justice, and for a province free from discrimination of all types. (See bit.ly/3qho1nf). The BC Black History Awareness Society has catalogued (1858-1978) the civil, human rights and social issues relating to discrimination in housing, employment, hotel accommodations and access to entertainment and recreational facilities (bit.ly/3d7lLuZ). Recalling the history of the fight for the franchise, and honouring those who fought for it, for decolonization, and for other democratic rights is essential moving forward.
2 Various estimates for the population exist ranging from 36,000 (Belshaw) to 50,000 (McCreight, see text). See John Belshaw, Becoming British Columbia A Population History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009); [set out McCreight source here and repeat short form in note 6].↩
5 United States Statutes at Large, 16, 346. This bill amending the US Constitution was passed by a joint session of Congress on February 27, 1869, and ratified by three-quarters of the states then in existence on March 30, 1870.↩
8 See Macdonald’s justification in Copy of a Report of a Committee of the Honourable the Privy Council, approved by His Excellency the Governor-General in Council on the September 30, 1872, in Statutes of BC, 1872, 6–7.↩
12 A government-mandated review of provincial laws and regulations that discriminated against Chinese found 223 measures had been passed from 1871 on. See British Columbia, Chinese Legacy BC Legislation Review (Victoria: BC Government, 2017). No similar study has been undertaken regarding legislation concerning First Nations or other Asian Canadians.↩
15 See (Dis)Enfranchisement, 1907–1947: The Forty-Year Struggle for the Vote, an exhibit mounted by the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, accessed December 15, 2020, www.southasiancanadianheritage.ca/the-vote/.↩