April 2015 Op-ed Vocal Local column for the Bridge River Lillooet News
When Chinese labourers were brought to the west coast in the 1880s by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to work on construction, they were paid one third the wages of other workers and sent into the most dangerous situations. Thousands lost their lives. Then for ensuing decades, they were treated terribly; federal and provincial governments subjected them to decades of legislated discrimination. Racism is a chronic, shameful truth in our collective history.
Appropriate redress for the errors of the past are long overdue and in recent years some efforts have been made. In 2006, after sustained legal pressure, PM Harper offered a formal apology and token financial compensation to Chinese Canadians for the egregious head tax. In 2014, Premier Clark also offered a formal apology and a few prominent citizens had the opportunity to publicly air the pain they felt. While these events are a good start toward healing, there are lingering grievances where more redress is required.
The issue of Lillooet’s disappeared Chinese grave sites is one such example. Our civic leaders and citizens are being left to shoulder the responsibility of correcting this matter and this is patently unfair. Federal and provincial governments don’t get to host a couple of press conferences, offer an easy apology, then wash their hands of further involvement.
The multi-cultural society that Canada claims to be is, as ever, a work in progress. Elected politicians must do their part. Our provincial honourable minister, Jackie Tegart, should be bringing pressure to bear where pressure is due. Furthermore, federal MP hopefuls for the newly-created riding of Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon should be pressed to advocate on Lillooet’s behalf when elected.
And where is BC Railway in all of this? To all appearances, BC Rail has been silent and officials have shirked their obligation. It always amazes me how railway companies, even to this day, conduct their business with such blatant impunity in this country. It’s time for the railways to become modern corporate citizens within the communities they traverse, whether that’s ensuring public health and safety or making appropriate, timely redress for past mistakes.
We now live in a highly interconnected world and harmonious relations are more important than ever. The sooner this grievance is fixed to the satisfaction of the Chinese Canadian community, the better. Tourism is key to sustaining the local economy and the reason that so much community effort went into the welcome kiosk.
So it was very disappointing to learn that there was a problem. But this disappointment fades in comparison to civic pride. Upmost in people’s minds is a desire to correct the problem. Nobody wants to think the welcoming kiosk or proposed adjacent park are sitting overtop the unmarked graves of Canadians. I wouldn’t want my cemetery removed from the public record and rendered invisible. I wouldn’t want my grave desecrated, driven over or walked upon. Redressing these historical mistakes will take a bit more time, effort and money and it requires involvement and financial support from all culpable parties.