The Lunar New Year: A Time to Remember and Celebrate Canada’s Diverse Heritage

Vimal Sivakumar
Published: January 22, 2023

Also known as the Spring Festival, Lunar New Year 2023 begins today — on January 22 — and ends on February 1.

This year also carries added significance for Chinese Canadians across the country, as 2023 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

What follows will cover the Lunar New Year celebration in Canada this year as well as the experiences of Chinese Canadians in this country over time, specifically in relation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.

Chinese New Year 2023

In Canada, Chinese Canadians are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, representing slightly over 4.6% of the total population (1.71 million people) as of 2021. In other words, many Canadian citizens and permanent residents (PRs) celebrate this holiday every year.

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Annually, communities across Canada organize Chinese New Year celebrations to mark the occasion for those who celebrate. For example, several malls and community spaces in Ontario held events including a lion dance parade/performance yesterday, which they will continue today. Likewise, Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood — the largest in Canada — will be hosting its 48th annual Chinese New Year parade today.

According to the Chinese zodiac, in all regions except Vietnam, 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit.

This suggests that 2023 will be a good year for those of Chinese heritage, as “it is predicted to be a year of hope [because] the Rabbit symbolizes longevity, peace and prosperity in Chinese culture.”

Note: In Vietnam, 2023 is the Year of the Cat

Despite the fortunate outlook of 2023 according to the Chinese zodiac, it is also important to recognize that Canada’s history with the Lunar New Year and the Chinese Canadian community has not always been one of blissful acceptance and celebration.

Canada's history with the Chinese Canadian community

While the immigration of Chinese people to Canada can be traced back to the 1700s, history dating back less than 150 years provides a good deal of insight into the tensions that existed between Canada and the Chinese community.

In 1923, following 37 years of a head tax being imposed on people of Chinese origin, Chinese immigration to Canada was completely banned for more than 20 years thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Note: The head tax passed as part of the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act meant that “every person of Chinese origin immigrating to Canada had to pay a fee”. This fee started at $50 per person before being raised to $100 in 1990 and then $500 just three years later. It is said that approximately 81,000 immigrants paid this head tax over 37 years.

This ban on immigration from China led to significant ramifications for those seeking entry into Canada but also for those who were already inside the country. According to a story by Matthew McRae, who interviewed University of British Columbia history professor Henry Yu, “until the late 1940s, the Chinese in British Columbia were not allowed to swim in pools with whites and [they] were segregated in movie theatres. Many Chinese immigrants lived in fear of being deported because authorities would often look for reasons to remove people from the country.”

Despite the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, few Chinese immigrants were let into the country until 1967 and those who did come to Canada were usually only granted access for family reunification purposes.

The current state of the Chinese Canadian community

People of Chinese origin, including both Canadian-born Chinese people and naturalized Chinese immigrants, represent slightly under 5% of Canada’s population according to the 2021 census. Next to Canadians with Indian heritage, the Chinese Canadian community is now the second-largest ethnic group of Canadians of Asian descent.

After a strained history between Canada and Chinese people in this country, although things are nowhere near perfect, the state of the Chinese Canadian community is now trending upwards. In fact, Chinese Canadians are at the core of some of the most notable contributions made across the entire country.

Chinese Canadians who have made a remarkable impact in this country include Adrienne Clarkson — the 26th Governor General of Canada — and Vivienne Poy, the first Canadian of Asian heritage ever appointed to the Senate of Canada. Poy is also credited as being a driving force behind “establishing May as Asian Heritage Month in Canada.”

In a more recent example, a Chinese Canadian small business owner in Nova Scotia made headlines for an act of extreme generosity back in September 2022. Carol Yang, the owner of Jay’s Chicken and Pizza, handed out 2000 free meals to local residents in the aftermath of tropical storm Fiona over a two-day period.

Looking ahead

It is important to always, but especially at moments like this, remember and acknowledge the history of the Chinese Canadian community in Canada. Looking back at such history, or that of any racialized group in Canada, serves as a necessary reminder of the ongoing need for acceptance and inclusion for all communities in Canada as well as the importance of learning from past mistakes to build a better future.

Lunar New Year 2023 and COVID-19

Returning briefly to the conversation around Lunar New Year, the marquee holiday is bringing with it a travel rush that coincides with a surge of Coronavirus cases in China. This surge has caused Canada to impose sanctions on incoming air travellers from China (as well as Hong Kong and Macao). Travellers from these countries must, for an initial period of 30 days beginning on January 5 of this year, present a negative test result taken less than two days before their departure on a flight destined for Canada.

This is important to note for any Canadians who are expecting family or other loved ones to fly in from China to celebrate the holiday.

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