Vancouver, 1937

Sexism, glacial-paced racial discourse and a call for residents to be become better allies.

Vancouver was small in the first half of the 20th century. Dimensionally, yes, but also ideologically. Current day natural resource development, ever-rising real estate prices, and a lustful standard of living position the area as Canada’s Shangri-la, but how much has changed?

Sixteen Marched

Experiencing steady immigration from Europe, East Asia, and India through much of the late 1800's and early 1900's the lower mainland had a population of 60,000 by the mid-1920's. This sudden growth amplified a lingering racial tension among residents. The Komagata Maru Incident of 1914 saw 356 steamship passengers turned away from the Burrard Inlet by exclusionary immigration laws. Federally, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was designed to keep Asians out while simultaneously allowing free range immigration of Americans and Europeans.

Per Section 38 of the Canadian Immigration Act (1910) — The government could prohibit any immigration under the “continuous journey” rule. “Immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character” could be denied entry or deported from Canada.

British Columbia was one of the hardest-hit Canadian provinces during the depression. Despite this the unemployed migrated to Vancouver because it was an optimistic place where, “The homeless would die from starvation before being frozen.” Tongue-in-cheek reputation aside the economy was indeed showing signs of recovery; A 4700 acre land purchase in West Vancouver by British Properties, the first Vancouver Art Gallery, completion of the Dominion Bridge steel factory in Burnaby, and the ongoing construction of a bridge across the first narrows (Lions Gate). Now a mixed demographic of second generation residents from around the world, Vancouver had grown to near 260,000. Politically, at this time the government was exclusively caucasian, male, and of European descent.

A Women’s Division was created within the Canadian Immigration Department in 1919. Systems for the “care” of single women immigrants (mostly British in the 1920s) were developed, including meetings by women officers, escorts to final destinations and long-term follow-ups. The government was concerned that they must save the women from being “ruined”. Immigrant women who engaged in sexual relationships outside of marriage were liable to be deported (sometimes on the grounds of prostitution or birthing an illegitimate child, justifying that they would become a state liability, since they would generally be forced out of their job).

Back in Vancouver this meant two things; an unfavourable climate for non-white immigrants and limited freedoms for most women. This mentality prompted police chief constable W.W. Foster and license inspector H.A. Urquhart—heralded locally as “morality enforcers”—to decide that license renewals for Chinatown cafes would be withheld until owners agreed to dismiss all white employees. Their rationale? The staff in these establishments, particularly young inexperienced waitresses, were being influenced into prostitution. In the opinion of majority white residents these Chinatown businesses were places “where immorality occurred” and were patronized only by “lascivious foreigners” and “lowly whites”.

It’s important to note that these racial overtones were similar to America’s gross proslavery fictionalization of “libidinous blacks” at the time. Canadians like to believe that things were somehow different “up here”.

In fact, these Chinatown businesses were simply trying to assimilate and welcome new customers by hiring caucasians. The threatened female employees felt so strongly about the right to choose their own employers that on September 24th, 1937 16 waitresses from 3 restaurants marched to city hall in protest. (Pictured above)

The mayor, George Clark Miller, refused them a hearing.

As I don’t have enough words to begin unpacking colonial Canada’s discourse with Indigenous Peoples, this example best summarizes race, gender, and income disparity in modern Vancouver. Misconstrued facts, painting despair with a happiness brush, the hyper-masculine assumption that women must be protected and owned, and curatorial xenophobia.

77 years later

Much has changed in the ethnic and geographic makeup of Canada but there are lingering phantoms and offensive, assumed tropes ripple through modern Vancouver. Notably, a real estate marketing hydra rears its ugly head every couple of months, the message; a fabrication of why “Canadians” should buy before mainland Chinese moguls own everything. I believed for years that the region was somehow different. After all, I work as a designer in one of the worlds most livable, progressive cities. Often I’m beside myself about this conversation but one can only wear privilege goggles for so long. It’s astonishing how many times I’ve had to say, “Stop. You’re making me uncomfortable” to a white man in a CEO or directorial role; whether he’s mimicking an accent, discriminating against a female subordinate, or gesturing offensively while wearing a conical hat (Yes, that happened). As a middle-class caucasian male I occupy the highest privilege bracket and have long believed my duty was to shut my mouth and let others speak. It’s tough. I don’t see the situation changing and I’m sick of referring to such a backwards ideology as a “situation”. I’ve resolved that this white male discomfort about actual dialogue is tantamount to the promotion of discrimination.

Stone-age inequality continues and… it’s so vanilla to say, “I don’t see sexuality, class or colour.” When I hear someone make that argument my inner voice shouts, “It’s because you’ve never needed to see it!” It’s not naïvety, it’s plain ignorant to run around swinging a complacency flag.

The details aren’t hidden. A quick look at Statistics Canada and I derived that the least discriminative income bracket belongs to 35-45 year old caucasians. Even then there is a $12,000 gap between women and men. Within the same age range, statistically, a woman from the Philippines, Korea, or anywhere in the Middle East is likely to make $20,000 less than a caucasian male with the same education and fewer years of experience. These are not new findings. Despite high visibility the status quo seems to be “ignore the rough edges and hope it gets better”.

Be a better ally.

We must collectively uplift conversations regarding race, gender, and sexuality. However uncomfortable these conversations may be, they need to happen, and they need to happen in rooms full of people from diverse backgrounds. Resting on the laurels of, “We’re doing pretty well compared to ______.” is not good enough. C-suites and “action committees” comprised solely of caucasian—mostly old boy’s club—cast members need to disappear.

So how can this be done?

Let’s step out of Vancouver and into a place where my hands get a bit shaky. I’m not talking about lip-service leadership models where corporations fabricate public-facing Benetton ads. I’m talking about companies that invest in people by offering competitive salaries to skilled workers from around the world, regardless of gender. I’m talking about companies that focus on human resources and ensure that there is motivational support and growth management dedicated to every employee. I’m talking about companies with enough foresight to recognize potential and promote from within. I’m talking about CEOs who understand that they cannot reasonably take home millions while entry-level workers struggle to earn a living wage. It’s going to take work and a significant time investment. It’s going to take mentorship. By all means, corporations should hire the best person for the job, but I’m tired of an economy that favours privilege and overlooks the most skilled applicants before they make it through the front doors.

In any mentorship arrangement there is a two-way value exchange of time, knowledge and perspective. As controversial as it may be, I’m afraid that the balance of power lay in the self-demotion of those who currently benefit from the most privilege. There are capable applicants the world over ready to earn these positions. Corporate CEOs, directors, and political leaders need to see an opportunity for change management and cohesion. The leaders of the next fifty years will be culled from heaps of resumes, an amalgamation of graduates from Wharton, Harvard, Cambridge, McGill—you get what I’m saying—will score favourability and are likely very skilled, but I imagine a day where these leaders look around the room and see unrestricted talent instead of homogeneity.

Back to Vancouver. I’m optimistic, I’ve seen evidence of change bubbling through local professional groups and non-profits but it is still very segregated. It’s not perfect, but at least its a start. Something is happening. It’s 2014 and perhaps in the spirit of 1937 and the 16 women pictured above who were denied a voice—and the countless Chinese-Canadians not pictured—we’ll see 16 residents march on city hall, march through the streets, or unite in web forums over something more important than a bicycle lane.


Kay J Anderson, Vancouver’s Chinatown — Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980, Originally published in 1995.

Photographer unknown, “Dismissed Girls Parade to City Hall” Vancouver Sun, September 25,1937

Canadian Council for Refugees, “A hundred years of immigration to Canada 1900 — 1999", May 2000

Countless conversations with Anna Cheung, Morgan Jeske, and Steve Mynett.