Chinese New Year is a time for looking forward, as well as reflecting upon the past, with hope and renewed optimism. Today marks the first day of celebrations in honour of the arrival of the Year of the Pig.
At OPSEU, we honour the significant contributions of Chinese Canadians who have been integral to the labour movement in Ontario and across Canada.
Ever since the days of the gold rush in the 1850s, the labour of Chinese workers helped found and build the nation. The Canadian Pacific Railway was constructed by Chinese workers who often received a fraction of the pay non-racialized workers received. Chinese workers were subject to the most deplorable working conditions and often suffered injury and death.
In an attempt to limit immigration following the railway’s completion, the Canadian government imposed a “head tax” on Chinese immigrants, who would then be tracked and subject to racial policies that prevented Chinese Canadians from voting, owning property, operating businesses, or entering certain professions.
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says the history of Chinese Canadians in Canada and in the labour movement is a story of the courage of individuals.
“When faced with intense racism, Chinese Canadians perservered,” said Thomas. “Chinese Canadians make our unions stronger, and this is the perfect time to celebrate their immense contributions to Canadian society.”
Elizabeth Ha, vice-chair of the Coalition of Racialized Workers and Ontario Federation of Labour VP Representing Racialized Workers, is the daughter of immigrant parents. She saw how hard they had to work in jobs in which they were underpaid.
“My mother had no choice but to accept her working conditions, and my father was forced into self-employment,” said Ha, who also expressed concern about the Ford government’s approach to the Chinese-Canadian community.
“I see how they use my community to advance their agenda. The changes that are being proposed will largely affect racialized communities. As an activist and a mother of two small children, I cannot sit back and allow the next generation to suffer the consequences of these policies. So my New Year’s resolution on February 5 is that I will fight back to ensure we keep what we have for our kids and to make sure we leave a better world for future generations,” said Ha.
Peter Thompson, chair of the Coalition of Racialized Workers, says it’s important to keep the right wing in check.
“We join with our Chinese-Canadian allies in the labour movement to mobilize against the consolidation of the right wing, the rise of corporations and increasing privatization that have specifically targeted racialized communities,” Thompson said.
Chinese union members across Ontario have joined the Chinese Workers’ Network. The network started with just a few Chinese union members in 2011, but now has over 500 members. Members contribute to the website www.chineselabour.ca with resources and information on workers’ rights, the Employment Standards Act, and how to organize.
In the last year, the coalition has continued to support the work of the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, specifically in condemning the anti-immigrant policies and inflammatory rhetoric that has demonized members of the Chinese community, as well as the anti-worker legislation that has significantly dismantled the rights and protections of all workers.
The coalition looks forward to sustained work on issues like the Proposed Framework for a new Anti-Racism Strategy developed by a coalition of community organizations, including the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC). For more information on the strategy, visit the CSALC website.