Racism in Canadian history

If a sociology class is learning about racism, students should be shown the historical evolution of racism. Racism was in fashion and blatant in the 19th century. The librarian assists the students in discovering the documentation of the times to define what racism was and how it manifested itself in those times. Pedagogically, documents like the 1885 Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration: report and evidence are extremely useful. The appendices to this Report are particularly interesting because witnesses describe their feelings towards Chinese people very openly and often in language that would not be appropriate today.

Such documents must be put in context. Racism was actually legal in the 19th century – there was permission, under the law, to be a racist. Students have a hard time understanding this concept. Elitists perpetuated their ideas through documents and it is these documents that librarians point to in order to help students see the basis of and interpretation of a critical issue of today. The narrative in the documents brings a reality to the students and aids them in understanding the basis of certain issues today such as affirmative action. The above document combined with a reading of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1885 and the Act to Restrict the Importation and Employment of Aliens will broaden their mindset to a larger sociological context.

In the 19th century race was a concept that integrated biological, cultural and linguistic differences between people. Students can be pointed to the Census on the meaning of ethnicity and how groups were divided differently than they are now. This can help students realize that racial definitions are not natural but rather socio-cultural concepts. Combined with an examination of immigration laws and statistics, they can see how census data helped define government actions and policy. One factor to investigate through other documents is to see if immigration policy changed or how it was affected as a result of any census.

Vivienne Monty is Senior Librarian at Frost Library, York University. She is the former Head of the Government and Business Library and was also the chief editor for the creation of two specialized periodical indexes, the Monetary Times and Maclean’s Magazine.