How the Canadian Senate Fought Racism

Insights into Canadian history and reform

In the late 1800s, the Parliaments of British Columbia and Canada voted in racist laws against the Chinese minority. One institution that stood against them was the Canadian Senate. Few elected politicians at that time were willing to oppose the racist views of the white majority.

When British Columbia was governed by the Honorable Hudson Bay Company, institutional racism was not tolerated. But in 1871 British Columbia became a full democracy in which the majority could make the rules for the minority. In the very first Parliament, the BC Legislature made it illegal for Chinese and native people to vote. When the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Head Tax the Canadian Senate revolted.

Canadian senators react to the 1871 Chinese head tax

Senator William Macdonald, former Hudson Bay Company man, called it,

“a diabolical Bill with not a shadow of justice or right on its side “

Senator William Macdonald

Senator Willliam Almon said, “how will we say there is a dividing line between Canada and the United States? Can we any longer point with pride to our flag and say that under that emblem all men… are equally free?”

When the legislation was sent to the Senate, Robert Haythorne said ‘it is difficult to amend a Bill based on a wrong principle, and

“…the principle is a bad and cruel one.”

Senator Robert Haythorne

Senator James Dever contrasted Canada with the United States and said he could not understand how Canada could “prohibit strangers from our hospitable shore because they are a different colour and have a different language“.

Senator Richard Scott said,

“[the head tax]…is so repugnant, one can hardly discuss it in a proper frame of mind”

Senator Richard Scott

The Parliaments ultimately prevailed, but the Senate delayed and moderated the legislation through amendments. After the loss, BC Senator Macdonald said,

I wish to express my satisfaction that a people who have been treated so ungenerously found representatives to stand up on the floor of this house and speak on their behalf.”

Senator William Macdonald

The Canadian Senate has served as a balance to the democracy, a voice for minorities and unpopular opinions. Because it was unelected it could not take on spending projects nor paralyze government as in the US. It has taken on issues that few elected politicians would touch, like mental illness, assisted suicide and marijuana legalization. It has been an important influence in shaping our Canadian culture and identity.

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