232 Westminster Avenue

The photo “Building damaged during Vancouver riot of 1907 – Westminster Avenue, $30” stored by the UBC Library Rare Books and Special Collections department depicts 232 Westminster Avenue, now known as 232 Main Street after the 1907 Race Riots. The building, located at 232 Westminster Avenue, was home to The Yushin Co Real-Estate Japanese Employment Office Contractors and Commissioners, which was owned by Hayakawa Ichiro. He claimed $30 worth of damages, which were reimbursed by the Government of Canada. Westminster Avenue has since been renamed Main Street and the building is now home to the provincial Vancouver Criminal Court [7]. The cause of the riots is clearly attributable to rising racial tension, which was pushed to the breaking point by the Bellingham riots that occurred in the United States of America. The Japanese government was significantly engaged in diplomacy with Canada during this highly volatile period. They played a large role in protecting Japanese citizens and influenced the reimbursement of affected citizens after the riots.

In William Lyon Mackenzie King’s report regarding the investigation into the race riots he states “the evidence here has gone to show that we are right in so considering, that this attack was not directed against the Japanese personally, but that it was, as I have already said, a matter begotten of alarm occasioned in consequence of the increased immigration from the Orient generally” [4]. The Japanese were not specifically targeted during the attacks, all people of Asian descent were targeted and attacked. The increased immigration of people of Asian descent began with the gold rush midway through the 19th Century and picked up significant traction during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Japanese, however, did not start immigrating until 1877. By 1900, approximately 15,000 Japanese had immigrated to British Columbia however, two-thirds continued onto the United States of America [6]. Various union officials and working class white-Canadians, fueled by racist rhetoric by Canadian politicians, founded the Asiatic Exclusion League in August 1907 [9]. Vancouver’s Member of Parliament Robert Macpherson proclaimed “an invasion of Asiatics […] are swarming into our country every month” [5]. It wasn’t until the race riots in Bellingham occurred that the Asiatic Exclusion League turned violent. After the Bellingham riots, which occurred merely two days prior to the Vancouver riots, 800 Asian refugees fled to British Columbia along with 500 new immigrants from Japan arriving by boat [9]. Racial tension reached a breaking point and chaos ensued. $9036 of assessed damaged was incurred by the Japanese people of British Columbia and $139 in administrative fees [4].

The Japanese Government was actively involved during this period played a large role in protecting the Japanese citizens residing in British Columbia prior to the riots. The Japanese Government lobbied effectively against the implementation of numerous pieces of racist legislation through the British Government. Their position was that if the legislation effected “all the immigrants in Canada, based on their education, moral standards, and level of living, without discriminating against Japanese immigrants” they would not object [2]. They were aided significantly due to the British Government wanting to maintain strong relationships with Japan, without the British as their ally the Japanese would have likely been subject to several racist legislative acts. Where the Japanese Government can be fault was inaction leading up to the riots. They were aware of the situation across the border, took no action, and went on to say the Vancouver incident was “a thunderbolt from a clear sky” [2]. This was despite, as previously explained, very clear warning signs of rising anti-Asian sentiment.

After the riots, the Japanese Government played a very quiet, yet effective, role in ensuring the remuneration of affected Japanese citizens. To ensure they maintained a good relationship with Britain and Canada they did not formally protest or take any official diplomatic action in response to the riots. Through the Japanese Consul-General, the government requested compensation for those who were affected. Their requested focused on the fact that it was a racially motivated attack rather than general disorder. The Government of Canada commissioned William Lyon Mackenzie King to investigate the situation and determine the need for reparations. They ultimately awarded the Japanese people of British Columbia a total $9175 [4], equivalent to approximately $249,529.30* in 2018 dollars [1]. While this did not cover the entire amount claimed it was seen as a fair settlement by the Japanese and was an act of good will by the Canadian government. The Government of Canada also sent the Japan Consulate $1,600 for their role in the preparation of the claims. This was ultimately rejected by the consulate as they saw it as their responsibility to the Japanese citizens.

In conclusion, while not specifically targeted, the Japanese people of British Columbia were the victims of senseless racism. While this situation would cool down, 34 years later they would be victim to much greater racism during the Japanese Canadian Internment from 1941 to 1949.  While the Asiatic Exclusion League no longer exists, racism is still a significant social issue that has been more relevant than ever in the past decade. We can only hope to learn from the mistakes of our past and to continue advancing a fair and equal Canada for all, regardless of race, religion, or creed.

* 1914 – 2018 period calculated by Bank of Canada with historical rates. 1907-1914 period calculated using a historical average of 3.02% inflation per year.

[1] Bank of Canada. Inflation Calculator. Bank of Canada. Accessed April 6 2018. https://www.bankofcanada.ca/rates/related/inflation-calculator/

[2] Iino, Masako. “Japan’s reaction to the Vancouver riot of 1907”. Canadian Historical Association. 1983.

[3] Japanese Diplomatic Records Office, Building damaged during Vancouver riot of 1907 – Westminster Avenue, $30, UBC Library Rare Books and Special Collections, 1907.

[4] King, William L. M., “Losses Sustained by the Japanese Population of Vancouver”, B.C, Government of Canada, 1908.

[5] Mackie, John., “This Week in History: 1907 The Asiatic Exclusion League is formed”. Vancouver Sun. August 11 2017. Accessed April 4 2018. http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/this-week-in-history-1907-the-asiatic-exclusion-league-is-formed

[6] Price, John. ““Orienting” the empire: Mackenzie king and the aftermath of the 1907 race riots”. BC Studies(156-157): 53. 2007.

[7] Provincial Court of British Columbia. “Vancouver Criminal”. Office of the Chief Judge, Provincial Court of British Columbia. Accessed April 2 2018.

[8] Vancouver Province. “Japanese Prepare Bill for Damages”. Vancouver Province. September 13, 1907. Accessed April 4 2018. https://tc2.ca/sourcedocs/uploads/images/Gallery/History%20Docs/Chinese%20Canadian%20History/Government%20response%20to%201907%20anti-Asian%20riots/Primary-Source-7.jpg

[9] Wynne, Robert E. 1966. “American labor leaders and the vancouver anti-oriental riot”. The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 57 (4): 172-9.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *