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category: Biography & Autobiography
published: Mar 2019
publisher: Douglas & McIntyre

Being Chinese in Canada

The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging

by William Ging Wee Dere

tagged: cultural heritage, personal memoirs, post-confederation (1867-)

After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885—construction of the western stretch was largely built by Chinese workers—the Canadian government imposed a punitive head tax to deter Chinese citizens from coming to Canada. The exorbitant tax strongly discouraged those who had already emigrated from sending for wives and children left in China—effectively splintering families. After raising the tax twice, the Canadian government eventually brought in legislation to stop Chinese immigration altogether. The ban was not repealed until 1947.

It was not until June 22, 2006, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to the Chinese Canadian community for the Government of Canada’s racist legacy. Until now, little had been written about the events leading up to the apology. William Dere’s Being Chinese in Canada is the first book to explore the work of the head tax redress movement and to give voice to the generations of Chinese Canadians involved. Dere explores the many obstacles in the Chinese Canadian community’s fight for justice, the lasting effects of state-legislated racism and the unique struggle of being Chinese in Quebec.

But Being Chinese in Canada is also a personal story. Dere dedicated himself to the head tax redress campaign for over two decades. His grandfather and father each paid the five-hundred-dollar head tax, and the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act separated his family for thirty years. Dere tells of his family members’ experiences; his own political awakenings; the federal government’s offer of partial redress and what it means to move forward—for himself, his children and the community as a whole.

Many in multicultural Canada feel the issues of cultural identity and the struggle for belonging. Although Being Chinese in Canada is a personal recollection and an exploration of the history and culture of Chinese Canadians, the themes of inclusion and kinship are timely and will resonate with Canadians of all backgrounds.

About the Author

William Ging Wee Dere has been an activist for over thirty years. He has published in numerous magazines and journals, including Ricepaper Magazine and CBC.ca. He co-directed the documentary Être Chinois au Québec (2013) and co-directed and wrote Moving the Mountain (1993) and Gens du Pays: The Chinese of Québec (1993). He lives in Montreal, QC.

Editorial Reviews

“Born into a family separated between China and Canada, growing up in a Montreal hand laundry, activist William Ging Wee Dere perceptively tracks his own and all Chinese Canadians’ pathway towards political and social equality.”

— Jean Barman, UBC professor emeritus and member of the Vancouver Historical Discrimination against People of Chinese Descent Advisory Group, 2017–18

“Though not an academic work, Dere’s book is nevertheless a dense read that will likely prove useful for high school and even college-level study. Students of Canadian history – especially Asian-Canadian history – will find this a welcome addition to an underexposed aspect of the Canadian story, especially with regard to the ways in which the Chinese-Canadian community shaped its relationship with Canada into what it is today.” ~ Quill & Quire, June 26, 2019

— Quill & Quire

“...William Ging Wee Dere’s book is packed with previously unpublished information and peopled with mostly unknown names; it takes us into little-known milieus and often hits us with unsuspected insights. But his writing style, swinging from matter of fact reporting to lyrical reflections, and his often self-deprecating, wry humour, lighten the reader’s mood by providing comic relief in the thick of a long epic struggle…. William Ging Wee Dere’s book itself reads like a superb film script. And it stands out as a major decolonial anatomy of English/French settler hegemony in Canada. Any takers?” -  Jooneed J Khan.  Montreal Serai, July 1, 2019

— Montreal Serai

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