WWI racism: black, Asian and aboriginal volunteers faced discrimination

Another angle to the coverage of WWI and Canada’s role, and a reminder how Canada has changed:

Many of those remembered by the monument [honouring Japanese-Canadian soldiers] were denied the right to enlist in British Columbia at the start of the war and had to travel to Alberta, where they joined up with regiments like the Calgary Highlanders.

Dozens died while fighting in Europe, and shortly after the war ended, the limestone cenotaph was erected, etched with the names of the men who fought.

Professor Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and an adjunct research professor at Carleton University, said Canadians of African and Asian ancestry, as well as First Nations, all faced discrimination.

“Canada was not the multicultural country that it is today,” he said. “It was very much a prejudiced society.”

After Britain declared war on Aug. 4, 1914, most of the first recruits were Anglo-Saxon and English speaking, and those who weren’t were simply turned away, said Cook.

First Nations were treated a bit differently, he added, because they had a reputation for being snipers and scouts. Still, the government didn’t know what to do with aboriginal volunteers because it feared the Germans wouldn’t extend any mercy on the battlefield to those they captured. By the end of the war, about 4,000 First Nations served, said Cook.

About 60 per cent of Canada’s first contingent of soldiers were British-born, 30 per cent were Canadian and about 10 per cent were others, Cook said, adding that most of the recruits were former British soldiers who served in the Boer War or were members of the Canadian militia or professional army.

WWI racism: black, Asian and aboriginal volunteers faced discrimination | Toronto Star.

From the Vancouver Sun, a good profile of the Louie brothers, Chinese Canadians, who fought in WW1:

In 1917, when there were conscription riots in Canada by those not willing to fight, the brothers’ dogged insistence on joining the Canadian Army and fighting for a country that refused them full citizenship and whose racial policies deemed them inferior was nothing short of astonishing.

The brothers were among the 300 or so Chinese-Canadians believed to have volunteered to fight in the First World War but about whom very little is known.

The pair’s exploits, therefore, must stand in for all those unknown warriors who, like the Louies, didn’t seek safety behind what they might have considered a convenient aspect of racism — their exemption from conscription.

Col. Howe Lee, one of the founders of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum at 555 Columbia St., in Vancouver’s Chinatown, says the Canadian government exempted Chinese Canadians from conscription in the First World War as a means to continue denying them citizenship.

“It’s generally accepted if a foreigner fights for a country during a war, they are entitled to citizenship. The Louie brothers weren’t foreigners, they were born here, but that didn’t matter. When conscription came in, they were exempt because the government didn’t want to give citizenship to Chinese,” said Lee.

Photographs of both soldiers and some of the letters they wrote home from the Western Front on army-issue paper are now on display in a small room at the museum, as is Wee Tan’s steel helmet that he brought home from France.

Battling enemies overseas, fighting racism on home front

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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