The Erasure of Marginalized Groups in British Columbian Land and Media

Written under the context of Canadian Cinema Seminar at Concordia University.

The province of British Columbia is home to the most diverse population in the country. Native Americans as well as descendants of various European and Asian countries call the Western coast of Canada their home. This cultural cohabitation, however, is not as shared as it may seem. Canada’s colonial erasure and estrangement from racialized groups is an issue that persists. I suggest that the invisibility of these communities in history and on-screen mirrors their physical segregation on the land that they share with colonial settlers. I will engage with this argument through the lens of the film In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, analyzing how this short brings to light lived experiences that exist in the shadows of the hegemonic history. To deepen my claims, I will pull connections from the films The Romance of Transportation in Canada, Mudflats Living and North of 60, while supporting from articles by Nicholas Blomley and Mary Jane Miller. With this, I wish to also think about how independent, or initially deemed undercurrent BC film and television brings to light lived histories of colonial erasure by the Canadian/British infrastructures toward Natives and Asian immigrants, in contrast to the mainstream narrative which celebrates illusory multiculturality and inclusivity.

The short film In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho recounts a history of ostracism of the Chinese community in Canada. Cho sets out on a historical research, interviewing survivors and relatives impacted by the Canadian discriminatory laws against Chinese immigrants of the 19th and 20th century. The Chinese people are recounted as notably playing a pivotal role in the union of the nation through their labour in building the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Mainly located in British Columbia, these labourers were active contributors to the province and its joining to the Confederation through their hard work and loss of life during the construction of the CPR. That said, in the eyes of the government, these Chinese immigrants appeared only valued when usable as labour. Recognition by the state was conditional, if any was granted.

Indeed, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain quotes the then-Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s comments on the decision to involve Chinese immigrants into the work force of the completion of the transnational railroad: “The Chinese labourer is valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement. It will be all very well to exclude Chinese labour when we can replace it with white labour.” There are two significant implications in this statement. Firstly, the comparison of the Chinese labourers to “any other agricultural implement” denotes a reduction and dehumanization of their worth as active and valuable citizens. To the ears of one hearing this message from a source of authority, such a representation instills a notion of wariness and devaluation toward the excluded group. Secondly, the proposition that the Chinese labourers are to be “replaced with white labour” when possible, suggests a disposability of people based on their race. Although they live on the same land and put in the same effort as the – most commonly – white workers, there is discrimination based on their origin and status as immigrants. Although the government “had no objection” to the incoming of Chinese immigrants, once the railway was completed, “they did not want the Chinese labourers” anymore. This altogether disparaging of the Chinese people constituted the foundation of its still-active marginalization.

The “othering” of the Chinese population was furthered during the creation of the Exclusion Act and the Head Tax, which are, as is defined in the film’s National Film Board of Canada (NFB) synopsis, “a set of laws imposed to single out the Chinese as unwanted immigrants to Canada from 1885 to 1947.” These strict laws forcing migrants to leave the continent or pay a heavy fee – now equivalent to the price of two houses – to re-enter the country are clear indicators of Canada’s disdain regarding Asian immigration. This racialization was equally present when Asian migrants found their place within British Columbian society. The city of Vancouver itself was – and in some areas still is – separated into cultural boroughs. Nicholas Blomley writes about Vancouver’s Japanese Canadian sector and the “long established Chinatown”:

Both of these sites speak to the generalized racism operative within Vancouver society that curtailed, both informally and formally, the spaces within which racialized groups could locate within the city. At the same time, the way in which such communities were obliged to live (often at high densities, in substandard housing) was itself seen as further proof of the undeniable alienness of “Orientals,” when juxtaposed with the ways in which the white population used propertied space. Such urban racisms implicate not only property, but also stories and mappings. (146-47)

It is thus that this alienating era was defined as “dark years” for the Chinese population but may well apply to Canada’s larger history as it constitutes the beginning of an ongoing denial of racial oppression. Chinese Canadians were erased in that moment in time, as well as later. Blomley writes about the re-writing of Vancouver’s land and how “the chronology now reads back from the present, tracing a story of previous occupations. To that extent, it reinscribes those who “Built, born, fought, loved, died on the land,” effaced by the bulldozing narrative of improvement” (144). In the Shadow of Gold Mountain retraces history, but it also takes place in the then-contemporary time of 2004, when the Chinese community still fights for recognition and refunding of the Head Tax. These lived realities are not openly told by the government, which constitutes an issue central to the documentary. The filmmaker remarkably states at the very beginning: “I wanted to learn more about this version of Canadian history that was left out of my schoolbooks.”

A film like The Romance of Transportation in Canada is an example of a version of history that erases of the impact of Peoples of Colour and Indigenous peoples on the country’s evolution. This NFB-produced short paints a picture of the evolution of transportation across Canada. From its contact by European travellers to its mid-twentieth century urbanization, we see how Canada is transformed by the innovations of transportation. In juxtaposition to a film like In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, the history depicted clearly omits the one documented by Karen Cho. The Romance of Transportation in Canada fails to mention both the significant work of Asian immigrants in the railroad construction and their continual exclusion by the Canadian government through discriminatory laws and housings. In this sense, there is clear elimination of the important contributions of People of Colour on the construction of the nation, as their involvement is disregarded from the screen. Furthermore, The Romance of Transportation in Canada represents Native Americans as mere extras to the European protagonists. It is omitted that they ensured the survival of the settlers and that they created new transportation methods. The lasting damages made upon on the land and the people are also absent from this canonical, government financed, and Oscar-nominated short.

The government’s visible disregard for existing ecosystems of human, animal and natural life over urbanization can likewise be seen in the film Mudflats Living. This 1970’s documentary is centered around the issue of urbanization in the North Vancouver mudflats area. The short is comprised of interviews from squatters who have made the mudflats their communal home and who see value in living away from the cultural and socio-economic pressures within the city. These conversations are interspersed with words from the mayor, who intends on transforming the land into housing and a shopping center. The film challenges the values put forth by the state and questions the decision of eviction, destruction of habitat, and burning down land for suburbanization and potential economic profit. With its interview with Native Len George, Mudflats Living points to the many century-long issues that the Indigenous population faces.

On this issue, Blomley writes how Canada’s “violent expulsions and spatial containment of aboriginal peoples […] have forced many native peoples to the urban margins, (150). This history of physical displacement perpetuates in the 1970’s Vancouver mudflats. The film directly comments on how the preservation of “the Indian way of life” is constantly put in peril by the Canadian government. George speaks on the infringement of the planned construction close to the Reserve land, understanding how it may be necessary to build housing for a growing population, but elucidating how detrimental it will be to Indigenous culture. As he asserts, the mudflats project will cause definitive damage: “the Indian kids are going to lose their culture altogether. […] It’s going to close them in, it’s going to bring changes in them that are bad.”

Overall, this reality of physical boundaries between cultural groups appears applicable to the populations living in and around miles of the Vancouver region. Cultural land barriers spread from within the Vancouver city, itself separated into ethnic boroughs stated in In the Shadow of Gold Mountain. The cultural gap extends to Northern Vancouver where anti-establishment folk who identify differently to the norm are put in peril of losing their home by the government, as we see in Mudflats Living. And finally, the disparity deepens as it carries further out into the Territories, in Northern Indigenous reserves where the needs of the Native communities are overlooked by the state and where the culture is Othered, as the series North of 60 tackles.

North of 60 is a television show portraying the daily life of an Indigenous Dene community in the Northwest Territories. The story is told partially through the eyes of a Vancouver Mountie having moved there to work at the police department. The show speaks on the difficulties lived by both the newcomer and the Native community on the reserve, displaying their cultural divide. The title of the series epitomizes the idea of a physical and communal barrier separating Native communities and settlers. “North of 60” refers to the sixtieth latitude line of the Earth. In the cartography of Canada, this horizontal line delineates the border between the Territories at the North and Provinces at the South. A clear separation of the North and South marks the partition between a land mainly home to Native Americans versus a land mostly inhabited by settlers. The split furthermore fosters the idea of their socio-cultural divide of two peoples, unable to understand each other and cohabitate together. As is noted in Mary Jane Miller’s article about the series: “”While the western frontier is simply a culturally defined interface, the northern frontier is an existential one”” (240). Hence, the implication of going “North of 60” from below suggests not only a physical displacement, but a cultural one too.

This segregation of land between cultures appears clear with this distinction of North and South. Spaces like reserved Indigenous lands and the Vancouver mudflats are undeniably a product of government decision-making to alienate targeted groups. These decisions force socio-cultural groups to either assimilate into society or encloses them out of it completely. In both cases, the marginalized groups are pushed away from the hegemonic culture. British Columbia’s history of erasing marginalized communities from the collective Canadian history is exposed and explored within certain films and omitted from others. It is often filmmakers of colour, of Native or immigrant heritage who seek out, uncover, and voice the obscured realities. Thus, one may see how only certain British Columbian media addresses the concealed, yet historical and on-going issue of racial disparity and erasure experienced by Indigenous communities and People of Colour.

Works Cited

Blomley, Nicholas. 2004. Chapter Five: Back to the Land; Notes. In Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of Property, 139-156, 186-188. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Mary Jane. 2008. Chapter Eleven: Set-up, or How North of 60 Was Framed. In Outside Looking In: Viewing First Nations Peoples in Canadian Dramatic Television Series, 229- 248. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Films Cited

In the Shadow of Gold Mountain – Karen Cho – 2004 – 43 min

Mudflats Living – Robert Fresco, Kris Paterson – 1972 – 29 min

North of 60 (“Southern Comfort”) – Brad Turner – 1993 – 50 min

The Romance of Transportation in Canada – Colin Low – 1952 – 11 min