Canada’s cities are diverse places thanks in large part to immigrants that have settled here and built homes, businesses and communities. Their impact can be measured not only in economic growth and prosperity but also by important contributions to the arts, technology, sciences and countless other culture and nation-building aspects. Canada was not always welcoming to would-be immigrants as restrictive policies limited their entry into the country or sent them back on perilous journeys. Many policies have recently been re-examined, discriminatory sections repealed and apologies extended by government, but the effect of these policies and disrespect shown towards ethnic communities has had a significant impact, at times causing neighbourhoods to be dismantled and immigrants to be forcefully relocated.
One of only two African-Canadian communities from the turn of the century in Canada, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver’s Strathcona area was destroyed in the name of urban renewal because it was considered a “red-light” district, later replaced by the Georgia St. Viaduct. The area was home to some of the 800 free slaves who left oppressive conditions in San Francisco on the Underground Railroad. With talks of taking down the Viaduct underway, perhaps this unfortunate chapter in Canadian history can be memorialized and the neighbourhood finally revitalized.
Similarly, Powell Street of the early 1900’s was home to Vancouver’s Japanese immigrants. Japantown was a vital part of the city’s burgeoning resource economy with links to the fisheries and canneries. The internment of immigrants of Japanese-descent in the wake of World-War-II was the death knell for the district, dispersing the community into the interior of BC. Japantown is now only in name as the Japanese were restricted from returning to the area after the war.
Today, May 23rd marks the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that was held off the coast of Vancouver with 376 British subjects of Indian descent on board for two months without provisions. Rejected and forced to make the long voyage back, they returned to execution and jail sentences. South Vancouver and Surrey boast vibrant South Asian communities today after a century of struggle to be treated equally, the first of these earliest immigrants having been delivered harsh sentences as they tried to establish their lives in the city.
These incidents raise critical questions about Canada’s past and how it shapes ethnic enclaves today. How do we reconcile these incidents and revitalize ethnic communities in our cities?
[Top Image: "A boy chants while taking part in the annual Vaisakhi Parade in Vancouver, British Columbia 13 April, 2013. The Vancouver Vaisakhi Parade marks the birth of the Sikh religion and is the oldest in North America, according to local media.” International Business Times]