John A. Macdonald, “the Chinese” and Racist State Formation in Canada

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Timothy Stanley


In 1885, John Alexander Macdonald took the right to vote away from men racialized as Chinese on the grounds that they were biologically different from “Canadians” and that their presence threatened “the Aryan character” of Canadian society.  Through the 1885 Electoral Franchise Act, Macdonald was seeking to consolidate colonial expansion into the west by constituting the federal polity around the owners of private property, i.e., of land that had been converted from the collective control of Indigenous people. As elsewhere in the world, European colonialism in Canada involved taking control of Indigenous people’s territories and converting it to the private ownership of European colonizers.  Making ownership of property the key to membership in the federal polity explains Macdonald’s initial support for giving the vote to women. It also explains why his legislation gave the vote to Indigenous people who met the property qualification. For Macdonald, ownership of private property was the final proof of an individual’s acculturation to colonial dominance. Property-owners from China, by contrast, threatened European dominance in British Columbia. Basing exclusion on alleged biological difference made it inescapable and permanent. The 1885 Act was thus a key moment in forming the racist state in Canada. Indeed, the strong opposition to Macdonald’s introduction of biological racism, including in the Canadian Senate on the part of his own appointees, underscores the significance of this change, one that would have consequences for racialized and excluded groups for many years to come

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Author Biography

Timothy Stanley, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa

Timothy J. Stanley is professor of education foundations and antiracism education in the Faculty of Education of the University of Ottawa.  He has written extensively on the history of racism in Canada as it affects people of Chinese origins and on the relations between comtemporary racisms and historical memory.