How do we teach Chinese-Canadian Narratives in Classrooms? (Part II)

Posted by Timothy J. Stanley on April 23, 2024

How can educators approach the integration of diverse and underrepresented Chinese Canadian narratives in ways that go beyond checking identity inclusion boxes or relying on deficit narratives and stories of victimization?  We invited antiracism researcher, educator and historian of Chinese in Canada, Timothy J. Stanley, Emeritus Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education, to work with us to lay out foundational understandings that can help us approach the inclusion of Chinese Canadian narratives in classrooms through an antiracist lens.  

This is the second in a two part series. Click here to read Stanley’s Reflections 1-4 in Part I.

5. Engage critically with white supremacy and its popularized lies about the Chinese

During the exclusion era (1872-1947), most white people in Canada had little or no contact with Chinese Canadians. They did different work, lived in different places, and did not socialize together. Chinese (and Japanese) school children in BC were often segregated. Even Chinese Christians attended separate missionary-ran churches. The exclusion of Chinese people from their daily lives allowed white people to imagine them as dangerous and different as they uncritically repeated what other white people had made up about the Chinese without ever having to engage with Chinese Canadians themselves. Over time, the fictions they created became taken for granted as facts. By the 1920s, most Canadians believed that Canada was and should be a white country, that the Chinese were foreigners who did not belong and who could not be assimilated to Canadian ways. School even taught these ideas. For example, D.J. Dickie’s All about Canada for Little Folk (1924), the first primary social studies textbook published in Canada, taught that white children were “Canadian” (p. 36), Dutch and Russian children were “New Canadians” welcome in Canada (pp.37-8), while Japanese and Chinese children were merely “visitors” in Canada (pp. 42 and 43). The textbook’s urging of children to celebrate Canada Day by pretending to be pioneers shooting “Indians”, trying to steal their horses, underlines the taken-for-granted nature of the white supremacist thought of the times (p. 35).


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Billy, the brave “Canadian boy,” and Poy, the Chinese “visitor”.  D.J. Dickie, All about Canada for Little Folk (Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1924).

Although legislated discrimination against the Chinese has ended, the idea that the Chinese are foreigners who do not really belong in Canada remains. Many Chinese Canadians report being asked where they are from, and people not accepting when they answer “here.” During the Covid pandemic, intense racism and abuse targeted Chinese Canadians, and those seen as being Chinese, with people often being told to “Go back to China.” More recently, foreign interference controversies have targeted Chinese Canadians and their organizations. 

6. Connect Today’s democratic rights to the Chinese Canadians who fought alongside others for them

Chinese Canadians have a long history of fighting against racism and for equal rights. For example, in 1884 Won Alexander Cumyow helped found the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) in Victoria, which represented all Chinese then in BC. The CCBA organized their self-defence, settled disputes in the community, and provided services including a free public school.  In 1924, he and his fourth-generation grandsons still had to register under the Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act even though he was the official interpreter of the Vancouver Police Department. He had to wait until he was 88 years old to enjoy the unquestioned right to vote. 


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(L) Won Alexander Cumyow’s Chinese Immigration [Exclusion] Act registration, 1924 

(R) Won Alexander Cumyow voting in the 1949 federal election (Vancouver Province Photo). 


Other second, third and fourth generation Chinese also organized against racism, inventing the term Chinese Canadian in 1914, organizing the Victoria Chinese Students Strike in 1922-3, successfully helping to lobby the Canadian Senate to amend the 1923 Exclusion Act to stop the deportation of tens of thousands. During the Second World War, hundreds of Canadian-born young men enlisted in the Canadian Army to fight for a country that denied them basic rights. These veterans were instrumental in getting the right to vote for Chinese, Japanese, South Asian Canadians and Indigenous veterans the right to vote. Chinese and South Asian communities allied to win the right to vote Today in Canada, all citizens enjoy democratic rights because, along with many others, Chinese Canadians fought for these rights for close to a century.


7. Recognize Chinese communities are diverse and dynamic: Explore how recent immigration has remade the Chinese communities of Canada

By 1941, Chinese Canadian communities dwindled to less than 0.3% of the overall population. After the Exclusion Act’s repeal until 1967, racial quotas limited Chinese immigration, taking generations to reunite Chinese families. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Canada admitted thousands of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam. In the late 1980s, Hong Kong became the major source country for immigrants to Canada. These Cantonese speakers reinvigorated many of the historic Chinese communities in Canada. By the 2000s, mainland China had become the major source country for immigrants and Mandarin speakers became the majority of the Chinese in Canada. These more recent immigrants have brought new and varied connections to people in China and around the world. Their histories in Canada are just beginning.   

Additional Resources, including lesson plans 

  1. Simon Fraser University, “A Brief Chronology of Chinese Canadian History:  From Segregation to Integration”.
  2. Open School BC, Ministry of Education, Province of British Columbia, “Bamboo Shoots: Chinese Canadian Legacies”.
  3. Canada’s History, “Primary Sources Relating to Canadians of Chinese Ancestry.”
  4. Multicultural History Society of Ontario, “The Ties that Bind: Building the CPR, Building a Place in Canada”



This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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