Early Chinese Canadians, 1858-1947

The year 1858 marks the arrival of the first major wave of Chinese migrants to the west coast of what later became Canada. (Their arrival was predated by a small group of sailors who landed in British Columbia's Nootka Sound in 1788 and then disappeared from the historical record.)

The year 1947 marks the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which had almost completely banned immigration from China, and it also marks the start of a new chapter in the history of Chinese Canadians.


Guide to our library collection

The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection includes a variety of materials about early Chinese Canadians. These include photographs, artwork, published books, personal archives, and, in particular, government records. This material is not held together in one location, but is dispersed throughout different parts of the LAC collection.

Library collection of published material

Our library collection includes many publications and records that touch on the history of early Chinese Canadians. These include literature, poetry, historical and sociological research, biographies, literary criticism, and children's books. We hold on microfilm two early Chinese-Canadian newspapers as well as relevant Canadian theses.

Library collection of government publications

LAC holds the most complete collection of Canadian post-Confederation federal, provincial and territorial government publications. A quick search for federal publications turns up histories and statistical profiles of the Chinese community in Canada, an examination of Chinese cultural traditions in Canada, and no fewer than four royal commission reports on Chinese immigration.

The LAC collection includes statutes and regulations; parliamentary journals, debates, and sessional papers; official gazettes; royal commission reports; and departmental annual reports.

Online search of the library collection

You can find references to all library material using Aurora, our online catalogue that contains bibliographic descriptions of LAC published holdings.

Here are some suggested keywords to use in your Aurora search:

  • Chinese Canadians
  • Chinese Canadians—History
  • Chinese Canadians—Social conditions
  • Chinese Canadians—Immigration
  • Chinese Canadians—Social life and customs
  • Chinese Canadians—Newspapers

And in combination with the words "Chinese Canadians," you can add words like:

  • Telephone directories
  • Attitudes
  • Biographies
  • Fiction
  • Canadian newspapers
  • Juvenile literature
  • British Columbia
  • British Columbia history
  • Vancouver
  • Alberta
  • Government policy
  • Immigration history

Guide to our archival collection

Online search of archival material

To search online for references to material available in the LAC collection, use Collection Search.


The LAC collection includes several dozen photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that depict Chinese Canadians or their community. Almost all of these photographs are presented online in the Gallery of Photographs.

As few fonds (archival collections) at LAC come from within the Chinese community, these photographs were taken by outsiders to that community. These photographers had their own interests and reasons for making their images, and we must consider the contexts in which the photographs were taken.

Many of these photographs, for example, were taken by Robert Reford, a young Montréal businessman. He travelled west with one of the earliest Kodak cameras (identifiable because the images are circular), and took several hundred images of the people and places he encountered on his voyage, including many British Columbia businesses and factories and their workers.

Toronto photo-journalist John Boyd was interested in virtually everything going on in his community. His images of the Chinese quarter in Toronto may have been taken for personal interest, or as illustrations for a news story.

Studio portraits and group photographs by professional photographers, on the other hand, captured the images of people who themselves decided they wanted their photograph taken. They may have lived in the same community in which the studio was located, or they may have been passing through. They may have wanted the photographs for themselves or, as with most immigrants, as visual evidence of their lives to send back home.

Materials from individuals and community groups

LAC possesses a small number of fonds (or collections) of non-published, archival material created by private individuals or community organizations that relate to early Chinese-Canadian history. These include:

Oral history material

LAC possesses a set of recordings of oral history interviews with older members of the Montréal Chinese community, conducted by Concordia University in the early 1980s, and transcripts from interviews done by a journalist for a CBC radio feature.

Government of Canada archival records

The various departments and agencies of the Government of Canada have created many unpublished records of archival value that relate to the history of early Chinese Canadians. The acquisition of this material is part of the LAC mandate, which is to serve as the memory of the Government of Canada and its institutions.

In the different archival fonds of the LAC collection, researchers will find documents that:

  • record the laws and policies that affected the lives of Chinese Canadians
  • shed light on the decision-making process that led to specific actions affecting this group
  • help to understand the relationships of the federal government with other levels of government in Canada, as well as organizations and individuals who tried to influence the attitude of the state toward Chinese Canadians

Given this specific focus, researchers will find that the LAC collection presents administrative, legislative and judicial concerns, rather than documenting individual or family histories. Furthermore, many of the documents stem from times when the federal government was requested to act upon what appeared to many as a "problem." As a result, much of the information provided in these records reflects the dismal aspects of this part of Canadian history.

Documents in the archival governmental fonds are often divided into different Record Groups (RGs). Below are examples of the types of documents that you will find in certain RGs:

RG76/R 1206—Immigration Program sous-fonds

  • Immigration case files, records of entry, certificates, head-tax related information (including the immigration records available through the online database Immigrants from China, 1885-1949)
  • See Immigration: Chinese for a list of head-tax certificates held by LAC
  • Chinese immigration laws, the Opium and Narcotic Drugs Act, B.C. laws, information about the application of the laws
  • Central registry files
    • Correspondence, requests from the public, exchanges between different departments

RG13/R 188—Department of Justice fonds

  • Legal opinions on different aspects of the immigration legislation applying to Chinese immigrants
  • Petitions and requests from Chinese individuals or groups to the government (head tax, indemnity after riots, etc.)
  • Legislation on Chinese immigration (drafts, amendments, provincial [mostly B.C.] legislation on Chinese immigration, etc.)
  • Litigious cases relating to individual Chinese immigrants
  • Illegal activities (opium, subversive political ideas, etc.)
  • The head tax

RG14—Archival Records of the Parliament of Canada: R 1021—House of Commons fonds

  • Sessional Papers (Records tabled in the House of Commons when the House was in session. Note that most Sessional Papers prior to 1916 were destroyed in the parliamentary fire of that year. Many pre-1916 Sessional Papers survive in published form.)
  • Addresses
  • Committee and Legislative Service Directorate records (reports, minutes of proceedings and related material created by various committees appointed by the House of Commons)

RG17/R194—Department of Agriculture fonds

The Department was responsible for immigration from 1852 to 1892.

  • Correspondence on various topics relating to Chinese Canadians or Chinese individuals (immigration, labour, trade and commerce, health/quarantine, communications from citizens/complaints)
  • Privy Council Office documents and minutes of proceedings, minutes of committees

RG20/R 202-0-3—Department of Trade and Commerce fonds

The Department was responsible for Chinese Immigration from 1892 to 1910.
The Chief Controller of Chinese Immigration was the Deputy Head of the Department.

  • Information relating to the U.S. (Chinese going to, laws and reports, etc.)
  • Trade and Labour Congress of Canada
  • Chinese immigration law, B.C. regulations
  • Petitions from Chinese residents
  • Some records relating to the head tax

RG33-145/R 1082—Royal Commission to Investigate Chinese and Japanese Immigration into British Columbia fonds (1900–1902)

  • Report on Chinese Immigration
  • Transcripts of hearings held in B.C. and the U.S. West Coast

RG33/146/R 1083—Commission to Investigate Alleged Chinese Frauds and Opium Smuggling on the Pacific Coast fonds (1910–1911)

  • Transcripts of hearings
  • Transcripts of hearings about allegations concerning Chinese merchants attempting to enter Canada on the Empress of China

RG2/R 165-0-5—Privy Council Office fonds

  • Cabinet Conclusions (1944 onwards)
  • Orders-in-council (OICs)

The Gallery of Documents presents several examples of OICs. LAC has a searchable database with linked digital images of Orders-in-Council from 1867 to 1924. The LAC collection includes OICs from 1867 to 2002. Researchers can also consult LAC microfilm copies of the OICs from 1867 to 1970.

These OICs document recommendations made by Cabinet and signed by the Governor General. They address a wide range of administrative and legislative matters, including questions regarding immigration.

The term "order-in-council" refers to any submission to the Queen's (or King's) Privy Council for Canada—the active portion of which is the Cabinet—that gains legislative authority through the Governor General's approval. This executive decision-making unit is recognized in the Constitution Act, 1867 as the "Governor General-in-Council" and is usually referred to as the Governor-in-Council.

RG6/R 174—Department of the Secretary of State of Canada fonds

  • Correspondence on health issues, labour issues, treatment of Chinese subjects in B.C., B.C. laws
    • Among others, with the Lieutenant-Governor of B.C.
    • Petitions from Chinese groups
  • Files from the Chief Press Censor on "undesirables" or "subversive" groups

RG7/R 178-0-5—Office of the Governor General of Canada fonds

From 1867 to 1926, the authority of the British Government in Canada was exercised by the Governor General. The Office of the Governor General fonds therefore includes executive-level correspondence dealing with a wide variety of subjects—including immigration and the Chinese-Canadian situation. Records of interest include dispatches exchanged with the Colonial Office, dispatches exchanged with fellow governors and senior officials, as well as letters addressed to and received from subordinates.

RG25/R 219-0-2—Department of External Affairs fonds

  • Central Registry files (subject-based records regarding Chinese immigration)
  • Records of the Office of the Under Secretary of State for External Affairs (These are policy files noting items of interest relating to the implementation of regulations, consular instructions, various immigration sponsoring groups and records relating to the status of the immigrants.)

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