Celebrating the contributions of Asian-Canadian workers to Canada’s labour history

April 30, 2023

Asian-Canadian workers have played an integral role in shaping Canadian labour history. But members of Asian communities still face acts of racism and discrimination today. Committed individuals, organizations and coalitions continue to fight for the rights of Asian workers – including migrant workers, many of whom are Asian – here in Canada.

“Canada, and the labour movement have greatly benefitted from the activism and labour of Asian-Canadian workers throughout our history. These workers helped build this country while facing tremendous obstacles due to racism. And while anti-Asian racism and discrimination persist, Canada’s unions are dedicated to challenging and eliminating racism and discrimination in all their forms,” said Bea Bruske, President of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Asian workers have faced rampant systemic racism from government, employers and within the communities in which they lived and worked. Asian workers also endured racism and discrimination from organized labour, when they were prevented from joining unions in numerous sectors. To address these injustices, workers organized and formed their own unions to fight for their rights.

Over the years, Asian community activists such as Joe Miyazawa, who was Japanese-Canadian, Roy Mah, who was Chinese-Canadian and Darshan Singh Sangha, who was Indian-Canadian, challenged discrimination and became leaders in their communities and the larger labour movement.

The history of Asian workers in Canada goes back to the late 1700s, when Chinese workers were first brought to Nuu-chah-nulth territory in British Columbia, providing forced labour to build early colonial settlements.

In the 1800s, an estimated 17,000 Chinese workers built the Canadian Pacific Railway, working under unsafe conditions, resulting in many workers never returning home. Thousands of Chinese migrant workers died from accidents on the job, winter cold, illness and malnutrition.

In the early 1900s, thousands of Sikh immigrant workers found work building British Columbia’s lumber and sawmilling industries, before a law was passed barring all Asian workers from holding logging licenses.

Take action this Asian Heritage Month:

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