Nancy Siew and her team, including Samantha Chow and Emily Law, have been working to create teaching materials about the contributions and sacrifices made by early Chinese immigrants to be included in Ontario’s expanded education curriculum. – Steve Somerville/Metroland Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Canada prohibited Chinese immigration almost immediately upon completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the construction of which cost the lives of thousands of Chinese workers, through policies such as the Head Tax. The enactment of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 (Chinese Exclusion Act) was the culmination of anti-Chinese racism; although it was repealed in 1947, Chinese Canadians’ fight to against racism continued for many years. 

As time goes by, however, how many new generations of immigrants and young students of Chinese descent understand that period of history?

Former Canadian citizenship judge and Vaughan resident Nancy Siew believes that everyone should learn about the hardships and struggles of Chinese immigrants since the Exclusion Act as it is part of the Canadian history. 

Siew has been dedicated to educating Canadians about the history of early Chinese immigrants through various efforts, one of which is to convince Education Minister Stephen Lecce to include this history into Ontario’s education system.

According to the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) 2021-22 student and family school climate surveys, 36 per cent of the board’s students identified as being of East Asian descent — including Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese — making up the largest group by race, but students within the school board do not appear to have a comprehensive understanding of their ancestors’ experiences in Canada.

Eleanor Yang, program co-ordinator of Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, who went to YRDSB schools from elementary to high school, said that while she learned that Chinese workers were responsible for the most difficult section of the railway, she didn’t really understand the full impact of this, until her later work experiences filled in the gaps.

“We never really get into that history, including how the Chinese Exclusion Act is the only legislation deploying state power to sanction an ethnic group from coming to Canada, how many folks were separated from their families for years and many died without their families, how Chinese folks were also targeted by unfair housing and employment regulations.”

When she learned this part of history, Yang felt that the curriculum and teachers feed into the Canadian “image” that Canada all of a sudden became “kind” overnight. “We also position racism against Asian folks as a thing in the past that we’ve ‘learned from’ and will never return to,” she added, noting it is obviously false as racism during COVID-19 was sweeping the country.

YRDSB public school teacher Jaclyn Wong echoes Yang’s view, pointing out the need to tell the history in schools and dig deeper into the issues of systemic racism to ensure it is not repeated.

“The significance of the CPR needs to extend beyond the contributions of Chinese labourers and highlight in greater detail the workplace discrimination, the lives lost and the fuelling of anti-Asian sentiments, which is relevant for today’s students because racism still exists in Canada,” she said.

Under Siew’s active advocacy, the Ontario Ministry of Education has decided to include examples and sample questions related to Chinese Exclusion Act and Chinese Head Tax into mandatory learning in elementary and secondary curriculum.

“We are taking action to ensure all schools benefit from expanded curriculum and learning on the positive contributions Asians have made to our country,” said Lecce in an email response. “Following the rise in anti-Asian racism in recent years, we believe expanded learning on our past will help us chart a positive path forward for all students.”

The classroom-ready resources created by Siew and her Tribute to Early Chinese Immigrants Canada Foundation contains photos, videos, written stories, artifacts and crafts. In addition, an exhibition about the Chinese community presented by YRDSB and its community partners will open at Markham Museum in the fall, and then will tour to local York Region museums and libraries over the next two years.

“What I expect from learning the history,” Siew shared, “is not only bring commemoration and gratitude, but also asks Canadians to join hands in building a more harmonious, inclusive and respectful country for all — One Heart, One Canada.”

By Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 04, 2023 at 16:49

This item reprinted with permission from   Markham Review   Unionville, Ontario
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