Why Did Chinese Immigrants Come To Canada?

Immigrants abound in Canada.

Randomly ask any one of them their feelings of moving to the Country, and you would get the same answer from most.

Almost all of them will say that being in Canada is a privilege. It has been for many generations of immigrants. More so for Chinese immigrants.

Like other ethnicities that comprise much of Canadian society today, the Chinese made their mark in Canada a long time ago. Since then, they have been making contributions in multiple areas.

Their move from their home country is the result of a desire for freedom and a better quality of life. Due to their long-time contributions, Canada has allowed Chinese immigrants to thrive and populate. As a result, the Chinese have become one of the largest ethnic groups to make up the Canadian population.

This article will detail the factors that led to this. It will discuss their contributions and hardships.  It will also cover the reaction of the Canadian government and the changes their presence has engendered over the years.

19th Century China

It is often the case that people immigrate due to conditions in their country. With this in mind, an understanding of the conditions of China is important. For, from this, the factors which drove the Chinese to come to the shores of Canada can be seen.

Between 1839 to 1864, China had been the victim of widespread political conflicts, war, famine, drought, and poverty. This 25-year period was when many of the Chinese in the rural parts of Chine succumbed to hunger and disease. Wars that erupted in different parts of the country also led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the country.

But, what events took place during this time?

1839 to 1842: The First Opium War

During the early 1800s, there was a high demand in the West for Chinese goods. These included ceramics, porcelain, silk, and tea. Amongst westerners, demand was particularly high with the British and Portuguese. For this reason, there was constant traffic in and out of trade ports in China.

Due to the high demand, China only allowed one currency for payment. The Chinese only accepted silver. For a while, the sale and exportation of Chinese goods became very lucrative. However, silver at the time was a pretty difficult metal to come by. Even for colonial powers like the British.

So, in an attempt to reclaim some percentage of the silver that was paid, the British had a plan.

At about the same time, there was a high demand for opium in China. Operating through private shipping and trading firms, the British took advantage of this. They sold many chests of opium to the Chinese. But, opium was a regulated substance during this time. Thus, all sales took place secretly.

With silver as the commodity of choice during these times, it was also the only accepted payment. As the Chinese consumed more opium, they also exhausted the silver reserves. This was not the only negative effect. The number of opium addicts in China also spiked. Because of widespread opium use, workers were not productive. This led to low production in China.

Due to all these effects, the Chinese government seized and burned all opium at the ports. This led to strained trade and political relations between the Chinese and the British. And, sometime in 1840, tensions would escalate into war. This marked the beginning of the first opium war in China.

The war led to the destruction and capture of numerous cities and villages along the Chinese coast. Fleeing for their lives, many Chinese peasants attempted to leave the country by boat.

1850 to 1864: The Taiping Rebellion

chinese in canada history

The opium did much to devastate many parts of China under the Qing dynasty. In addition to the damages from war, China suffered from natural disasters, famine, and droughts. Also, the country had economic issues due to its defeat by Western powers. To make up for the government’s fiscal deficits, heavy taxes were imposed on people.

In addition to that, the population also increased dramatically during this time. While there was much land to produce crops, many private farms were also confiscated. This led to anti-Qing sentiments that would later lead to a rebellion. This would be the Taiping rebellion.

It was a rebellion started by the Hakka people. They were a Chinese Han ethnic group in the Southern provinces of China. The rebellion was an attempt to take back land that was stolen by the Manchu-dominant Qing dynasty.

The rebellion lasted for more than a decade. The Hakka-led rebellion ultimately failed. Nonetheless, it was a violent time when 10 million Chinese men, women, and children died.

The Taiping rebellion would create other conflicts in many other parts of China. And, many of these violent and bloody conflicts would last until 1873.

A Summary of Push Factors

A push factor is defined as a part of a country’s social, political, economic, and physical environment. These aspects of a country are factors that cause people to leave. Looking at China’s mid-19th century history, one could see that the two events mentioned cause emigration from China.

These include:

  • Armed conflict within many parts of the country
  • Economic instability which led to the displacement of many people in China
  • The political instability that marginalized many ethnicities in China
  • Famine and drought
  • Natural disasters

 All of these factors put together led many members of the Chinese population to leave China, and seek a better way of life in other parts of the world.

The Immigration of the Chinese to Canada

The earliest records of Chinese immigrants to Canada date back to the late 1700s. But, there are many countries closer to mainland China. So, why did the Chinese choose Canada as their destination? 

The First Chinese Settlers

In the 1770s, a man by the name of John Meares wanted to encourage trade between Nootka Sound, British Columbia, and Guangzhou, China. He was a Canadian fur trader. So, he wanted to sell otter fur to China by exporting them from Nootka Sound to Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

For this, he needed a trading post along the West Coast in British Columbia. Hiring native-born Canadian help was out of his budget. So, he turned to the affordable services of 50 Chinese artisans. He recruited these workers from parts of Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macao. These 50 Chinese workers would be the first Chinese settlers on Canadian soil.

Pleased with the efficiency of Chinese labourers, Meares ventured back to China to recruit more workers. Unfortunately, during his absence, something happened.

Coincidentally, the Spanish also wanted sole rights to trade from British Columbia’s West Coast. For this reason, they seized Meares’s settlement in Nootka Sound. Meares found the settlement under Spanish control. And, without an employer, the 50 Chinese artisans were left to settle in the surrounding area.

The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush

In many parts of North America in the 1850s, gold mining became a trend for many who wish to make a quick fortune. Of all the places in the United States at the time, California had the highest number of gold seekers. Many of these gold miners were in San Fransisco. And, some of them are Chinese.

In 1858, word got around that there were many gold deposits in Fraser Valley, Barkerville in British Columbia. As a result, many Chinese settlers moved from San Fransisco to British Columbia in search of it. Thus, a huge exodus of Chinese gold miners found their way to Canada.

But, the news of gold would also reach the ears of the Chinese in the mainland. Already facing poverty, disease, and death from past rebellions and wars, many mainland Chinese also travelled to Fraser Canyon. As more and more Chinese immigrants arrived in Barkerville, it became a settlement. This made it the very first Chinese community in Canada.

Many of the Chinese came to Canada from the Southern Parts of China. Mostly, they came from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The number of Chinese immigrants would increase to around 7,000 immigrants by 1860. In many areas new the valley, small “Chinatowns” emerged.

As predicted, many of them would be successful in their gold mining efforts. At least, for a while.

The Canadian Pacific Railway

The profits from gold ventures would not last long. Gold deposits would later run out. And, the government banned the Chinese from looking for gold in other areas.

In 1871, British Columbia joined with the rest of Canada. To facilitate this, Canada’s government at the time required a railroad to be built. This was required to link British Columbia to the rest of the country and make it accessible.

For this plan, the British Columbian government needed workers. Thus, there were numerous proposals and moves to allow for the immigration of workers from the British Isles. However, then prime minister Sir John A. Mcdonald had a better idea.

chinese in canada history

Aware of the Chinese immigrants already in the country, he proposed to recruit them instead. According to him, this would cut costs. For the first batch of workers, there would be no need to pay the costs of transport. Also, it was already known that Chinese labour is cheap. These arguments were more than enough to convince the rest of the British Columbian electorate.

An agreement was reached in 1880. After that, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway began in 1881. It was completed four years later. The majority of the labourers were Chinese.

The working conditions for the Chinese workers were not favourable to their survival. Historians say that all Chinese workers were paid only $1.00 for their services. Workers from other ethnic groups received at least twice the amount.  Also, the Chinese often slept in boxes and tents. As they increased the length of the tracks, they needed to hike long distances. This was to move their camps. They would group in towns nearby. Here in these towns, they would create little Chinatowns.

For the contributions of Chinese workers, experts say that they were instrumental in the railway’s completion. Despite this, no Chinese workers were present in pictures of the railway. 

A Summary of Pull Factors

“Pull factors” are the conditions of a country that attract immigrants. Oftentimes, it is the presence of more opportunities. More specifically, the following conditions attracted the Chinese to Canada:

  • The awareness of opportunities in Canada
  • The presence of jobs in Canada
  • The active efforts of businesses to travel to China to recruit workers
  • The absence of war within the country

The Chinese Immigration Acts

The construction of the railway led to the immigration of around 15,000 Chinese workers into Canada. After the completion of the Candian Pacific Railway in 1885, the Canadian government decided to regulate the immigration of the Chinese into Canada. Of all ethnicities entering Canada at the time, only the Chinese were subject to the type of regulation provided by the Chinese immigration acts.

The Chinese Immigration act has four versions.

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885

After the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was created. It was not an act designed to fully ban Chinese immigrants from Canada (at least, not explicitly). But, it did levy a head tax of $50.00 for a single Chinese person. Chinese migrants who arrived in Canada had to pay this head tax upon their arrival.

This was still during the late 1800s when China was still undergoing violent transitions from one regime to another. As a result, for those fleeing for their lives, the head tax did not do much to lower the rate of Chinese immigration to Canada.

Hence, the Chinese Immigration Act needed some changes.

The Chinese Immigration Acts of 1900 and 1903

In 1900, the government dramatically increased the required head tax to $100. Three years later, the amount rose to $500.

These policies had a demographic effect on the Chinese immigrant population. Since coming with one’s spouse and children incurred a higher cost, most immigrants were men. They made the journey to Canada alone with nothing more than a small fraction of their belongings from China. Though reunifications were few, the Chinese population in Canada tripled by 1921.

Seeing this, the government saw the need to exclude Chinese immigrants.

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 was different from its predecessors. The first ones had high fees to discourage Chinese immigrants. In contrast, the new act contained an outright prohibition on new Chinese immigrants entering Canada. For this reason, historians used the term “Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923” as an alternative name for the act.

The act was put into effect on the 1st of July 1923. July 1 was a holiday called “Dominion Day”. Chinese immigrants did not celebrate on this day. For, to them, it became known as “Humiliation Day”.

The act not only banned new immigrants.  It also did not only make bringing a whole family prohibitively expensive. But, under the new act, Chinese immigrants already in Canada may not sponsor any member of their family.

As a result, immigration from China dropped dramatically. Chinese communities became smaller. And, the familial lives of Chinese men became unstable.

World War 2 and Chinese Immigration

The anti-Chinese sentiments in all levels of society would undergo many changes.

Across the ocean, China and Japan were at war. And, the war was fought in China. 1937 was the year of the Sino-Japanese war. During the Sino-Japanese war, many parts of China including Shanghai, Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou fell under Japanese occupation. Japan’s expansion would continue until around 1943- two years before the end of World War 2.

history of chinese in canada

Many Chinese immigrants were afraid for their loved ones back in China. In 1939, Canada joined the Allies and entered World War 2. To persuade Canadian intervention on Japan’s actions, the Chinese community gathered its financial and human resources to contribute greatly to Canada’s efforts in the war.

The Chinese community offered financial support through the purchase of war bonds. Also, they vowed to boycott all Japanese goods.

Despite the suspicion of the government, many Chinese men enlisted in the military. They performed many functions from espionage to training guerillas in areas under Japanese rule.


The atrocities of the Holocaust were due to racial discrimination. Realizing this, the Canadian government took steps to revise its racially-prejudiced immigration policies. This led to two outcomes:

  • In 1947, the Canadian government removed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. Chinese immigrants could enter Canada again. Even without paying a head tax.
  • The Chinese immigrants already in Canada and the ones who contributed to the war effort were awarded citizenship status.
  • With citizenship status, Chinese immigrants may now sponsor their spouses and children back in China. 

Chinese Integration and Compensation

The years following World War 2 saw many changes in Canada’s racially-biased legislation. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by parliament in 1947. This was later followed by the awarding of citizenship status to Chinese immigrants.

History of Chinese Immigrant in Canada

Twenty years later, the Canadian federal government removed all terms and provisions in their immigration policies that contained racial distinctions. This was the beginning of Canada’s efforts at being more open to immigration. In 1967, the federal government under the Pearson administration introduced the point system for immigration. With it, admitting immigrants into Canada was based not on race or birthplace. But, on education and qualifications.

This allowed Chinese prospective immigrants to be on equal footing with their non-Chinese counterparts. With this, the Canadian government had taken the vital step to ensure equal treatment of immigrants to Canada.

To many experts, racial discrimination was officially and institutionally put to an end in 1971. This was when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was the Canadian Prime Minister. It was during this year when the Canadian Multiculturalism Act would be signed into law. It made Canada the only country in the world to have multiculturalism as a policy.

This act would undergo some amendments. The most recent one was in 1985.

There have also been many efforts to compensate for Canada’s unfair treatment of the Chinese in the past. Here are some important moments:

  • In 2006, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to the surviving Chinese immigrants who paid the head tax. He also promised to compensate these immigrants.
  • In that same year, members of the house of commons promised the Chinese community funding for community infrastructure projects.
  • In 2010, an apology was given publicly by the City of Westminster for its past anti-Chinese policies.
  • In 2014, British Columbia premier Christy Clark acknowledged the province’s unfair treatment of Chinese immigrants in the past. She then issues an apology on behalf of the province. 

With the changes in Canada’s immigration policy, not only did immigration from China and other countries rise. But, the Chinese in Canada now enjoyed a life of respect, dignity, and opportunity. All under the protection of the Canadian government.

Chinese Immigration to Canada in the 21st Century

Chinese Immigrants in Canada

Today, the Chinese make up one of the largest segments of the immigrant population in Canada. As of 2016, Statistics Canada recorded more than 1.8 million Canadians of Chinese origin.

In 2011, Canada welcomed 122,000 Chinese newcomers. A vast majority would inhabit the provinces of British Columbia and parts of Ontario. Many would also earn citizenship.

Over the years, this number has increased very little compared to that of Indian and Filipino immigrants. Many experts point to several factors. But, the most significant one might be the improvement of China’s economy and living standards.

Nonetheless, China remains to be one of Canada’s main sources of immigration. 


The history of Chinese immigration to Canada is long and fraught with many obstacles. It began with a group of people. These were people who had simple dreams. They wanted to have the right to live. They wanted to work. And, they wanted to provide for the people that they love. With these goals, like many immigrants today, they made the brave move to the Great White North.

What would greet them are danger, loneliness, and discrimination. These were conditions that they had to live with for decades. For many of them, their modest goals were enough to see them through as others succumbed to disease and homesickness.

Nonetheless, these Chinese immigrants persevered. They gave all the money they had to the government. They were there to help build the railway. One which made Canada one country. And, they fought alongside Canadians to ultimately win the second World War.

Despite their modesty, Chinese immigrants had unknowingly built the foundations of Canada.

Indeed, the road to the first Chinese Canadians is far from pretty. Be that as it may, we could learn some valuable lessons from the history of Chinese immigrants. We can see these more clearly if we could put all the negative experiences aside for just a moment.

First, the perseverance of the first Chinese under harsh and unfair conditions is evidence. It is proof of the importance of resilience during trying times. These immigrants persevered not just on one occasion but over nearly a century.

Second, Canada’s journey to multiculturalism was also difficult. Looking back at its history, we will see that Canada needed to undergo many changes to transform. It took much time for the country to finally recognize the Chinese for their contributions. But, eventually, it did.

As a result, Canada has now become the multicultural haven it is known for. And, as it looks back on its history with its immigrants, it will continue to be.   

Choose Canada Magazine

Each member of our team at Choose Canada Magazine has been in Canada for over five years, and has helped dozens of people worldwide find their life in Canada.

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