Exploring below the surface for Asian Canadian history in the Revelstoke area

Revelstoke Museum & Archives curator Cathy English shares reflections on how people of Asian descent contributed to Revelstoke and to Canada.

Sawmill workers from Japan, South Asia, and Europe at Comaplix sawmill, on the north-east arm of Upper Arrow Lake, circa 1910. The different ethnic groups were all housed in segregated housing. Image: Courtesy of Revelstoke Museum & Archives

This story first appeared in print in the Summer 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:

By Cathy English, Curator, Revelstoke Museum & Archives

In May, the Government of Canada marked Asian Heritage Month. On the Heritage Canada website, it states, “Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity for all Canadians to learn more about the many achievements and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent who, throughout our history, have done so much to make Canada the amazing country we share today.”

To mark Asian Heritage Month, it is important to recognize and commemorate Asian people in our own community and region and to recognize the struggles they had to find their way in a society that was openly racist.

Heritage Canada speaks about the achievements and contributions of Canadians of Asian descent, but even today, those contributions are not always well recognized. Several thousand Chinese men helped to build the western portion of the Canadian Pacific Railway between Vancouver and Craigellachie in the 1880s. They were subjected to sub-standard working and living conditions, and were given about half the pay of Caucasian workers, and that they were often given the most dangerous jobs. Many Chinese men died, but we don’t know how many, because records of their deaths were not registered with the province, unlike those of Caucasian workers who died. In the iconic Canadian photograph of the Driving of the Last Spike at Craigellachie on November 7, 1885, there is not a single Chinese worker in the crowd. The Chinese workers were seen as a necessary evil to get the railway completed, but their accomplishments and their contribution were not acknowledged, and they were not made welcome. This story is still not as widely known as it should be.

File photo: Cathy English (left) and Shannon Bollefer at the Suffragettes Tea at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

Instead of recognizing the contribution of the Chinese workers, the government pandered to the widespread racism against them and conducted a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. This is a chilling document to read. It exposes the racist attitudes towards Chinese people at the time. The Commission resulted in the creation of the Head Tax, which was imposed only on Chinese immigrants. This is only one example of the institutionalized racism against people from Asia.

Wong Kwong and his wife Yee Von immigrated to Canada in 1907. Wong Kwong was well-educated and literate, and had the means to bring his wife with him. They settled in Revelstoke and raised their nine children here. They were respected in the community for their strong work ethic and for their kindness towards everyone, but they still faced discrimination. The oldest daughter, Jean Kwong, was the first Chinese-Canadian woman to graduate as a nurse in Canada. That one act broke a huge barrier for Chinese people in Canada, but it came with a cost. Her younger sister told me that when Jean graduated, she was the top student, but was denied the award that she should have received. It was given to the second-highest achieving student, who was Caucasian. The sister still felt bitter about this when she told me about it more than 50 years later.

Immigrants from Japan and India were also met with racism when they came to Canada. The newspapers are rife with racial slurs and derogatory stories about Asian settlers and labourers. On March 4th, 1910, a crew of railway workers were clearing the tracks after an avalanche came down at Rogers Pass. Where they were working, a second avalanche came down and buried 58 men. Thirty-two of the men who died were Japanese. Most of them had lived in Canada for several years, and they worked hard as labourers at sawmills and on the railway. All of the men’s bodies were recovered, and all of the Japanese men were sent to Vancouver for burial in Mountain View Cemetery. Buddhist ceremonies were held for all of them. In Revelstoke, a community Memorial Service was held. All of the men’s names were included on the memorial program, but a black line separated the Caucasian names from the Japanese names. Even in death, the racial divide was present.

Thanks to the tireless research of Tomoaki Fujimura, we know now a lot more about each of these men: when they came to Canada, names of family members, ages, and other details. Tomoaki was able to trace some of the descendants of these men, and some traveled to Canada to take part in commemorative events held in 2010. Everyone who participated in the commemoration still feels a sense of awe at the power of the remembrance. We felt that we were honouring the memories of all of those who had lost their lives. The museum has several hundred pages of original documents relating to the 1910 slide. One of these is a letter written by Mehar Singh, the crew boss of a group of South Asian workers who were helping with the recovery and clean-up efforts after the slide. Singh complained of poor treatment by the road master, and said they were left without blankets for three days while they were working at the site. He also cited verbal and physical abuse against his crew members, who were just trying to do their best to help at a difficult time.

Over the years I have worked at the museum, I have come across incredible stories of some of the Asian settlers who came here. Not everyone treated them poorly, but racism was so ingrained in society that they faced considerable barriers just to live their lives. A balanced view of Asian settlement is hard to find because of the racism and skewed views presented in the media and even in government records. Sometimes we have to dip below the surface to get a glimpse of the truth of people’s lives.

It is easy for us to congratulate ourselves on how much better society is now, and even justify the racism of the past by saying that it was long ago, and that was just the way it was, and that they didn’t know better. We can be thankful that we now have anti-discrimination legislation in our country, and that our parliament is more diverse, and that we have hate laws in place. We live in a much more tolerant society than the early settlers of our country did. Or at least we think we do. The racism may not be as blatant as it was in the early 1900s, but it still exists, and is still entrenched in our systems and our governments.

There has been a rise in racist acts against Chinese people in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people from visible minorities are expressing fear, for good reason. Recent events in the United States have shown how deep racial divisions still are.

If we really want to celebrate Asian Heritage Month, we need to do more than just think happy thoughts about our diverse and tolerant country. We need to do more than just congratulate ourselves on not being racist. We need to be actively anti-racist. We need to call out racist “jokes” and language and acts at every opportunity.

When the closures came into effect in March, someone on social media criticized a local Chinese restaurant for being open, even though they were following protocols and were open for take-out only. The post was openly racist against Chinese people. Another restaurant owner shared her sadness and disappointment over the post. Many, many local people responded in solidarity, letting her know that most of us here do not share those racist views. The restaurant owners and their families were assured that they belong here and are appreciated and valued as members of our country and our community. I was proud of the people who quickly jumped in to call out the racism, and to support our fellow citizens, but sad to see that someone in Revelstoke felt that it was okay to express that kind of racism, and even denied that it was racism.

Canada is a diverse country. There is much to celebrate in our diversity. We can and should celebrate it, but we must also be strong in our fight to end racism. People who tell us that they are being treated in a racist and discriminatory way need to be believed and validated without being made to feel that they have no right to protest blatant racism or even micro-aggressions. Let us celebrate Asian Heritage Month by recognizing the wrongs of the past, by identifying the wrongs in our current society, and by diligently working to end racism.

This story was created by Revelstoke Museum & Archives curator Cathy English for Asian Heritage Month.