Tag Archives: asian heritage month

Important moments and leaders in Asian Canadian labour history

Asian Canadian Heritage Month is an opportunity to recognize the contributions of Asian labour activism to Canada. PSAC is proud to share some of the moments that have shaped Asian Canadian labour history.

Racialized Asian labour part of Canada’s first colonial trade settlements

In 1788, the first Asian workers in Canada were brought to Nuu-chah-nulth territory in British Columbia as forced labourers to build some of the first colonial British trade settlements in present day British Columbia.

Canada’s national railway built with exploited racialized labour

Chinese workers on CPR line, 1884, Library and Archives Canada

In the early 1880s, 15,000 to 17,000 Chinese workers built Canada’s national railway. Given dangerous work in unsafe conditions, many Chinese labourers did not return home. It is estimated that three workers died for every mile of track laid. Over the railway’s construction from 1880 to 1885, nearly 2,000 workers died from horrible accidents, an absence of proper food, and a lack of medical aid.

Punjabi sawmill workers

Sikh sawmill workers, Vancouver Public Library

First arriving in 1903, thousands of Sikh immigrant workers built British Columbia’s lumber and sawmilling industries. Generations of Sikh families who found work in sawmills faced racial discrimination. The legacy of sawmill workers can be seen in the Cowichan Valley town of Paldi, named after the home of many workers in the Punjab region of India.

Chinese Laundry Workers’ Union

Photo of a laundry business in Toronto 1923 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

In 1906 the Chinese Laundry Workers’ Union demanded higher wages, a two-hour lunch break, and no work on Sundays. These leaders inspired the formation of more Chinese workers to form their own unions: Chinese Railroad Workers, the Chinese Canadian Labour Union, the Chinese Cooks’ Union, and the Chinese Restaurant Workers Union. The Chinese Labour Association was formed in 1916.

The first Japanese-Canadian union

Exclusion from unions was one outcome of rampant racism. In 1919, about 200 Japanese-Canadian workers at the Swanson Bay Mill went on strike to gain equal pay with white workers. This led to the Japanese Camp and Mill Workers Union, the first Japanese-Canadian labour union.

Joe Miyazawa

Joe Miyazawa addresses a TLC-CCL anti-racism workshop, International Woodworkers of America

In the 1940s, Joe Miyazawa helped to organize the Kamloops sawmill where he and other Japanese-Canadians worked. Following World War II, Joe became an organizer with the International Woodworkers of America, later becoming associate director of research.

Roy Mah

Labour activist and journalist Roy Mah, Paul Yee

A leader within Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian community, Roy Mah recognized harmful impacts of divisions based on race and sought to unite workers. He became an organizer in 1944, and through his organizing, brought as many as 2,500 Chinese-Canadian workers into the union. Mah also wrote and edited a Cantonese edition of the union newsletter, believed to be the first such publication in North America.

Darshan Singh Canadian
(Darshan Singh Sangha)

Darshan Singh Sangha with mill workers in 1940s
Heritage Foundation

Darshan Singh Sangha came to Canada in 1937 when he was 19 years old. Finding work in a sawmill and joining a Sikh community of Punjabi immigrants, Darshan saw firsthand the extremely poor and unequal conditions that he and other Asian workers faced. Darshan later served as the International Woodworkers of America’s Secretary General and led a worker’s march to Victoria in 1946. He led a strike for 37 days that resulted in legal rights to an eight-hour work day, increased pay, and better working conditions.

Asian Canadian Labour Alliance

Asian Canadian Labour Alliance

Formed in 2000, the ACLA is a grassroots collective of community and labour activists aiming to develop an Asian Canadian labour identity. These activists have made many contributions to the labour movement and advocated for the working rights of not only people of Asian descent but of all racialized and marginalized communities. With more than 20 years of experience coalition-building among Asian workers, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance continues to push for solutions and justice for workers and communities.

Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Worker Arts and Heritage Centre, 2007

Canada’s largest coalition of self-organized migrant workers, community groups, and unions, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change was formed in 2008 after care workers spoke out about exploitative working conditions. They were met with severe backlash from the media. This was the deciding factor in forming an alliance to fight for better working conditions for careworkers, seasonal agricultural workers, and temporary foreign workers.

Migrante Canada

International Migrants Day 2019, Facebook

Across Canada, Filipino activists have formed community organizations to advocate for the protection of temporary foreign workers. Many of these organizations exist under the banner of Migrante Canada. Formed in 2010, organizers work for changes to end harmful exploitation and systemic vulnerability of migrant workers, strengthen unity among the Filipino diaspora and uphold workers’ rights, fair wages, and due recognition.

Danielle Dubuc

Danielle Dubuc, Facebook

Recently re-elected in 2021, Danielle is the first woman of Asian descent elected as the Canadian Labour Congress Vice President for Workers of Colour, first elected in 2011. She has been an active member of PSAC and our component, the Customs and Immigration Union, for almost 30 years. Through organizing and education, Danielle has worked to ensure that human rights, equity, and the fight against all forms of racism are top priorities within the labour movement.

Hassan Yussuff

Hassan Yussuff © Canadian Labour Congress

Hassan emigrated from Guyana and became the first racialized president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) of South Asian descent from 2014 to 2021. In 1988, he joined the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) and within a year was elected Chairman of Local 252. He later became the CAW’s national staff representative and first director of human rights. In 1999, he became the CLC’s first racialized person to be elected to the executive as vice president and was then elected secretary-treasurer in 2002. With the CLC, he received the 2021 Canadian Freedom of Association Award for collaboration in Canada’s 2017 ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 98, the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention. In 2021, Hassan was appointed to the Senate of Canada.

Sharon DeSousa

Sharon DeSousa, National Executive Vice-President, PSAC

Sharon DeSousa is the first racialized woman to be PSAC national executive vice-president. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Sharon came to Canada when she was five years old. Sharon began her career in the public service when she joined Human Resources Development Canada in 1998. While working as a benefits officer with Service Canada, she was elected as vice-president of equity for her local, Canadian Employment and Immigration Union Local 00648. She was the first racialized regional executive vice-president for Ontario in PSAC’s history in 2011 and was re-elected in 2014 and 2017.

Lily Chang

Lily Chang, Secretary-Treasurer, Canadian Labour Congress

Lily Chang is the first worker of East Asian descent to be elected to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) as secretary-treasurer in 2021.  As Treasurer of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 79, Lily solidified the organization’s fiscal strength and acquired a building in downtown Toronto. She has also served as executive board member of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council as chair of the Municipal Committee.

This article was first posted on the PSAC website.

Asian Heritage Month: Remembering the past, shaping the future

It’s been 20 years since the federal government officially recognized Asian Heritage Month, but Asian and Asian-Canadian workers have been contributing their labour – and organizing for workers’ rights – for at least 200 years before that.

From building Canada’s railways to working in lumber, mining and agriculture, and later in health and other care professions, Asians from a wide variety of ethnic origins have built and enriched this country and its labour movement from the ground up since the 18th century. 

Anti-Asian racism in the workplace and in our unions dates back to those early days as well. In the late 1800s, Chinese workers in Canada were prohibited from joining unions. In the early 1900s, Canadian immigration laws were changed to deter and prevent East and South Asian workers from entering the country.

Fighting for workers’ rights 

People of Asian heritage in Canada continue to work and organize for workers’ rights despite these challenges. In the first half of the 20th century, East and South Asian workers formed their own unions demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Into the 21st century, they successfully mobilized to change immigration laws, providing better working conditions for migrant caregivers.

Since 2000, a grassroots collective of Asian community and labour activists have worked through the Asian-Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) to build an Asian-Canadian labour identity and represent Asian-Canadian trade union members and workers in the broader labour movement.

Anti-Asian racism continues 

Asian-Canadian workers, union leaders and organizers continue to contribute to Canada’s workplaces today. However, anti-Asian racism persists, as seen by a lack of representation in leadership positions, racial micro-aggressions, dehumanizing and divisive stereotypes, and the rise of anti-Asian hate throughout the pandemic.  Between 2019 and 2020, the number of police-reported hates crimes against the East or Southeast Asian population increased by 301 per cent, and incidents of violence against the South Asian population increased by 47 per cent.

Our union is taking action 

PSAC is demanding change by calling on the federal government to provide equity, diversity and inclusion training for all federal public service workers, and advocating for changes to the federal Employment Equity Act to address exclusion and discrimination in the federal public service.

We are also finalizing PSAC’s Anti-Racism Action Plan that will review how our union serves, mobilizes, engages and represents our Black, Indigenous, Asian and racialized members. Members will be able to learn and be heard through education sessions and workshops, a dedicated membership survey, focus groups, telephone townhalls, discussions and more.

We will be sharing a timeline of key moments in Asian-Canadian labour history later this month, and urge you to join us in taking action to combat anti-Asian racism – and all forms of racism – in our workplaces and communities.

Get engaged and take action 

This article was first posted on the PSAC website.