Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thirty years ago a documentary awoke a sleepy community

Chinese-Canadians protested a W5 segment titled "Campus Giveaway" at rallies in four cities in January, 1980. The protests were a "galvanizing experience," said Sid Tan (below) of Vancouver.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 23, 2009


The television segment lasted about 11 minutes, an expose of the takeover of Canadian classrooms by foreign students.

A section of a university lecture hall filled with non-white faces was shown.

The documentary, which aired on television 30 years ago this month, had unintended consequences.

It awoke what had been, until then, a silent community.

A history of the Chinese in Canada includes such benchmarks as building the railroad; defending against rioters in 1907; paying the Head Tax; enduring the Exclusion Act; bravely contributing to the war effort; gaining the franchise in 1947; and, oddly enough, protesting against a single episode of a current-events television program.

Some who watched back then have never forgotten their initial reaction.

Victor Wong was studying science at the University of British Columbia when “Campus Giveaway” aired on the popular program W5 (today known as W-Five).

“It touched many of us,” he said yesterday. “The message was: Because of your skin colour, or your ethnic heritage, you don’t belong here. You’re just taking up someone’s space.”

Sid Tan was also studying at UBC in 1979.

“They were calling a bunch of Canadians foreigners. It was quite disgusting and quite off the mark,” he said. “I remember it as a galvanizing experience.”

Anthony B. Chan, a communications professor born in Victoria, recalls the shock.

“We’re going, ‘Huh?! They’re saying we’re foreigners. They can’t be serious.’ ”

The report alleged that Canadian students were being prevented from studying medicine and engineering because foreign students were occupying their rightful place in university classrooms. Much of the segment focussed on the plight of a student from Ontario who was thwarted in her aspiration to study pharmacy at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Joseph Wong missed the episode when it originally aired on Sept. 30, 1979. He was completing a residency at a hospital when he watched “Campus Giveaway” on a videotape a few weeks later.

“My reaction was so vigorous I’ll never forget it,” he said. “How could this happen in Canada? We’re living in a country without discrimination, I thought.”

He had already booked tickets for a flight to Calgary to visit his mother-in-law. He brought with him the videotape, which he showed at a meeting on New Year’s Eve, 1979, in Calgary, and on New Year’s Day, 1980, in Edmonton. He then flew to Vancouver for a showing four days later.

The tape made the rounds to small audiences in Regina, Ottawa, and Montreal, as well as in smaller Ontario cities such as Waterloo and Sarnia.

A community known for “not wanting to ruffle any feathers,” in Dr. Wong’s words, formed Ad Hoc Committees of Chinese Canadians Against W5 in 16 cities, from Victoria to Halifax.

In late January, four simultaneous protest marches were held. About 2,000 marched on CTV’s offices. “Red, brown, black, yellow and white,” they chanted, “all Canadians must unite.”

The protestors were told Canadian universities had only 85 foreign medical students, 66 of them from the United States.

As well, university officials disputed the W5’s numbers, stating the number of foreign and visa students had been multiplied by a factor of five.

Even 30 years later, Dr. Wong is baffled by the airing of footage in which any Asian face was presumed to be non-Canadian.

“All the yellow-colored students they showed were nationalized Canadians, landed immigrants or permanent residents, or local-born Chinese Canadians,” he said.

The committee had identified all of the unnamed students shown in the report. Not one was a foreign student.

W5 aired an on-air apology that tiptoed around the committee’s complaints. It was rejected by the committee. Finally, in April, CTV issued a statement Globe columnist Dick Beddoes described as “a retraction, an apology, a confession of error, a disorderly retreat.”

Murray Chercover, the network’s president and managing director, wrote: “Right after the program was broadcast our critics — particularly Chinese Canadians and the universities — criticized the program as racist: they were right, although it was never our intention to produce a racist program.

“There is no doubt that the distorted statistics combined with out visual presentation, made the program appear racist in tone and effect.”

With the apology came the offer to fill a 11-minute segment on an upcoming W5 episode.

It aired in December. A survey of 25 job placement agencies found 17 casually agreeing to send only Caucasian employees, while only three flatly refused a request violating provincial and federal laws. The segment was titled, “White and Bright.”

“It was a beautiful victory,” Dr. Wong said.

Mr. Chan, who is now a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology at Oshawa, traces his own family roots in Canada to the arrival of his grandfather in 1881. His mother was born in Vancouver, his father, like himself, in Victoria. He devoted a chapter of his book “Gold Mountain” (New Star, 1983) to the W5 scandal.

In retrospect, he sees 1979 as a pivotal year for the Chinese-Canadian community. Many had been working on the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat people, most of them ethnic Chinese, at the time “Campus Giveaway” was aired.

“It was time,” he said. “Things just coalesced. Thank you very much, W5.”

The politics have reverberated in the 30 years since, as Chinese-Canadians won election to Vancouver city council, to the mayoralty of Victoria, to the Legislature and to Parliament. Some active in the W5 protests have gone on to become filmmakers, provincial court judges, and activists in the campaign for redress of the hated Head Tax. Out of the protest committees, the Chinese Canadian National Council was formed, giving a diverse community a united voice.

At the time of the protests, Dr. Wong, a landed immigrant, was identified in a newspaper story as someone who had “yet to become a Canadian.” He immediately filled out the requisite paperwork. He looks forward next year to celebrating 30 years as a proud citizen of what he calls “the fairest society on earth.”

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