Canadian city commemorates historic protest against segregated 'Chinese-only' schools

Dana Hutchings
·4 min read

A century later, residents of Victoria, British Columbia, are commemorating the Chinese community’s 1922 successful protest against the city’s school segregation.

Locals paid tribute this week to the Sept. 5 boycott, in which some 200 Chinese students walked out and refused to attend the “Chinese-only” schools that were designated for them by the board amid rampant anti-Chinese sentiment at the time.

The yearlong boycott eventually forced the board to reverse its decision. On the 100th anniversary marked on Monday, community members retraced the steps of the protesters, honoring their fight against racism.

“What we’ve experienced in the past, especially with Covid and the anti Asian sentiment, brings back some of the discrimination that our forefathers and ancestors had to endure,” Alan Lowe, chair of the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society, which spearheaded the event, told NBC News. “The Chinese population … has overcome a lot of barriers in order to be able to work in professions and to be elected politicians and to reach the highest goals that many of the Chinese population reached.”

Several community leaders commemorated the anniversary, too, including Ryan Painter, chair of the Greater Victoria Board of Education, who during a speech issued an apology.

Lowe explained that more than a century ago, the Chinese community in Victoria were generally perceived as an economic threat. Local businesses attempted to get the area’s politicians and school board of trustees to “suppress” the Chinese population, Lowe said.

“There was the Victorian Chamber of Commerce as well that wanted to undermine whatever the Chinese population was trying to do,” Lowe, also a former mayor of the city, said. “They were concerned that the Chinese population was working a lot longer in jobs and other businesses [that] were open a lot longer, which was an ‘unfair’ disadvantage to the white people within the society.”

Segregation in schools began as a gradual process. White parents in the area first petitioned to separate the Chinese students in 1901, accusing them of being “unclean, untidy, depraved, ill-mannered,” and having a demoralizing influence on their children, according to the museum society. Though the petition didn’t result in immediate action, mounting pressures from the Trade and Labour Council caused the board to create a committee to determine whether they had the power to establish a separate school. And by January 1903, more than a dozen junior Chinese students were placed in an isolated classroom.

Four years later, the board mandated that Chinese-born students pass an English exam to attend schools in the district. And not long afterward, all students of Chinese descent from grade one to four were segregated from public schools.

The most drastic measure came in July 1922, when the board passed another resolution to segregate all Chinese students up to grade seven for the upcoming school year, effectively cutting off Chinese children’s access to any interaction with other students, Lowe said.

“We have to also understand at that time, the students only went to school up to about grade eight,” he said. “So it was very, very detrimental to the Chinese population to not be integrated into the school system at that time.”

Three local organizations – the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Canadian Club – organized the Sept. 5 boycott, so that on that first day of school, when principals removed Chinese students from two of the elementary schools and prepared to march them into the Chinese-only school, a Chinese student gave the group a signal in Cantonese and the kids quickly dispersed. For a year, more than 200 Chinese students continued their studies under two teachers from the U.S. hired by the Chinese Canadian community.

The yearlong boycott prevented the board from advancing further segregation policies. However, it wasn’t until decades later that the Chinese students would be fully integrated into the area’s public education system.

Painter, who presented a plaque in commemoration of the protest, said in a statement that “among a long list of historic wrongs perpetrated against the Chinese community,” the segregation was a particularly “dark” incident in the school district’s past.

“The racist discrimination that led to this act is unacceptable and viewed with regret,” Painter said.

While the apology comes 100 years later, Lowe said it’s necessary to bring “closure” to the Chinese community in Victoria.

“By bringing closure, we can continue to work together in this multicultural mosaic that we have in society,” Lowe said.

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