Chinese Immigration Act (Canada) (1885)
Incorporating recommendations from the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration (1884–85), the Chinese Immigration Act was the first Canadian legislation to formally limit immigration based on race. While not prohibiting immigration altogether, its severe restrictions formed the basis of official Canadian policy toward the Chinese until after World War II.
Protests began almost immediately after Chinese laborers started to arrive in large numbers to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1880s. More than 17,000 arrived in Vancouver alone between 1881 and 1884. Although white Canadians complained that the Chinese were dirty, disease ridden, and lacking morals, employers were not slow to recognize their value, as they worked for 30–50 percent less than European laborers, who were in any case in short supply. Although Prime Minister John Macdonald was, like most Canadians, opposed to permanent Chinese settlement, as he told the House of Commons, “Either you must have labour or you can’t have the railway.” Following the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the Chinese Immigration Act imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese laborers and limited ships to one Chinese immigrant per 50 tons of cargo. Excluded from the head tax were tourists, students, diplomats, and merchants. The measure was amended in 1908, limiting head tax exclusions and expanding the list of prohibited immigrants. A revised act of 1923 eliminated the head tax but instituted exclusionary clauses so broad that Chinese immigration was virtually halted until repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947: During that period, only 15 Chinese were legally permitted to immigrate to Canada.