The Japanese communities in British Columbia existed within a largely hostile, dominant white community. In 1895, the British Columbia government changed the provincial elections act to deny Japanese and their Canadian-born offspring the right to vote. Chinese had previously been denied voting rights in 1885. Due to these restrictions Asians were also excluded from participating in municipal and federal elections, holding public office, becoming lawyers, pharmacists, architects, and chartered accountants, since these positions were open only to those registered on the provincial voters’ list. These are some of the many restrictions placed on Asian immigrants and their Canadian-born children.
Asians were often portrayed as threats to the province’s ethnic “purity” and to the economic security of white Canadians. As well, they were believed to be unassimilable and undesirable for permanent settlement in the country. Anti-Asian sentiments reached a high point in 1907 when a mob of Anti-Asian demonstrators swept through Vancouver’s Chinatown and into the nearby Japanese area. The riot took Vancouver police four hours to control and caused thousands of dollars worth of damage to Chinese and Japanese homes and shops.
Following the riot, the Canadian government sent the Minister of Labour at that time, Rodolphe Lemieux, to Tokyo to meet with the Japanese government. The result was the 1908 Hayashi-Lemieux “Gentlemen’s agreement” where Japan voluntarily limited migration to 400 agricultural labourers or domestic servants per year.
After the 1908 Hayashi-Lemieux agreement, the structure of the Japanese community began to change as women began arriving from Japan in significant numbers. The wives of those already living in Canada were initially not counted among the quota of 400 people per year allowed to immigrate to Canada. Some women were brought by husbands who returned to Japan to find a wife, but many arrived as ‘picture brides’ where they were married by proxy in Japan to men living in Canada. Subsequent revisions of the “Gentleman’s agreement” would include women and children within the quota as well as increasingly limit the numbers of those allowed in Canada.