Following the Sheep

A notorious riot sheds light on our longest-serving prime minister

In September 1907, thugs paraded through Vancouver’s Chinatown, smashing windows, wreaking havoc and looking for non-white people to hurt. Julie F. Gilmour’s Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race and the 1907 Vancouver Riots takes us back to these few days of racial trouble, but only as a starting point. Having zoomed in on Vancouver in that autumn, Gilmour focuses our attention on one man who showed up in the riot’s aftermath: William Lyon Mackenzie King. This is not the King we are used to seeing—the old wily politician with the dog and the ghosts and the dull, careful speech. The King of 1907 is the ambitious young civil servant and social climber whose burgeoning career was only partly fulfilled, most of its glory still a shiny promise in his imagination.

Between the autumn of 1907 and the spring of 1909, King traipsed back and forth across the country and then the globe. Not only did he travel to British Columbia to head a commission to inquire into the riots, but he also tried and failed to get sent to Japan to negotiate restrictions on emigration from that country. He went to the United States several times when the American president Theodore Roosevelt enticed him to act as a go-between for Washington in its diplomatic relations with Britain. After his trip to London as a hybrid amateur diplomat representing both Canada and the United States, King headed to Europe, across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, across India and into China. His quest? To deal with the world opium trade, and to restrict Indian and Chinese immigration to Canada. In between all of this, King finally convinced Wilfrid Laurier to create a new federal department of labour, the responsibility for which could be given to none other than himself. All King had to do was resign from the civil service and get himself elected to Parliament to represent the riding of Waterloo North, which he did in the autumn of 1908. Then off to Shanghai he went. By the spring of 1909 when King finally arrived back in Ottawa, he squeezed in attendance for the final few days of the new parliament. In June he officially became a minister of the Crown and, on the same day, Harvard awarded him a PhD. Not bad for 20 months’ work.

History is all about selection. Which sources survive? Which do you look at or find compelling? Gilmour chooses King’s involvement in the aftermath of the 1907 race riots because of what it reveals both about this man who would become our most successful prime minister and about the tangled mess that was Canada’s external affairs when foreign policy was still officially a British responsibility. Gilmour also chooses this moment in time because of King’s diary.

King famously kept a diary for almost all of his adult life. Most of it is now available to peruse—page by page, day by day—on Library and Archives Canada’s website. It is not entirely complete, though. King kept special diaries during the period of his international trips in 1908–09 and for some reason these were not digitized along with the rest. Dedicated researchers can find these diaries on a microfiche publication put out by the University of Toronto Press in the early 1970s, but that would require a fair amount of perseverance in this digital age. So Gilmour is poking into the dusty closets of Canada’s past and sweeping out some lost -treasures.

When King arrived on the scene in Vancouver in October of 1907, he did not just find broken windows and simmering racial tensions. This was an international incident, with diplomatic repercussions. Vancouver’s population consisted mostly of British Canadians. But there was a sizable (for Canada at the time) population of Japanese, Chinese and those who were then awkwardly called Hindu people. Local feeling was strongly against the non-white Canadians, although the violence of the riot was a dramatic eruption.

Canada was already supposed to have an agreement with Japan in which that country would limit emigration of its citizens to Canada. But this had not stopped many Japanese Hawaiians from coming to the West Coast. As for the Chinese, ever since 1885 the federal government had imposed an ever increasing head tax to limit their numbers. But again this never worked well enough to satisfy white British Columbians. The position of Indian migrants was different insofar as they were fellow British subjects. In an empire that was ostensibly supposed to allow for free movement of goods and people, Canada was in a tricky position if it wanted to limit the migration of Indians.

So when King showed up in Vancouver, he had both a domestic and an international audience: all of the countries involved—China, Japan and Britain—had an interest in King’s investigation. So too did the United States. The American president Theodore Roosevelt feared that Japan had territorial ambitions on the West Coast and that the immigration of Japanese people to North America was its precursor. The Americans were just then planning to send their navy on a grand tour of the Pacific Ocean—a showcase of American military power in the form of what was called the Great White Fleet.

King had two jobs. His first task was to handle claims for compensation by those who had suffered in the riots. But he also pushed the mandate of this investigation to deal with the causes of the riots. On this, there was not much debate, as all blamed increased immigration of non-whites to Canada’s West Coast. It was an odd and self-fulfilling version of the sources of racial conflict: if they come, there will be trouble.

The task was a delicate one. King faced a local police chief who told him that the police could not guarantee safety should the number of new immigrants continue to increase. Officials on the ground blamed American agitators for stirring up local anti-Asian sentiment. Because Britain was then allied to Japan, the government in Ottawa had to keep these obligations in mind when forming immigration policy. If Americans could stir up resentment against Ottawa and Britain, they would demonstrate that British Columbia had much more in common with its neighbouring American states. Certainly, the British obligations were present and mattered in unexpected ways. For instance, Britain wanted Canada to delay the repayments to the Chinese claimants after the riot. The British had a long-standing battle with China over pirate attacks on British ships on the Canton River, and they could hold back Canadian payments to leverage their own claims. Such was the intricate world of imperial federalism in which Canada found itself embroiled at the time.

Over the last several decades we have learned a great deal about the extent and the nature of anti-Asian feeling across the westernmost province and how this shaped Canadian history—everything from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 to the Japanese internment during the Second World War to the horrible fate of those aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914. The great success of The Trouble on Main Street is the way it takes these studies one step further. It is one thing to know that most Canadians, including King, lived in a world steeped in racial assumptions. The real strength of this book is Gilmour’s demonstration of how the race relations of the early 20th century played themselves out in bureaucratically complex ways, depending as much on the politics of federalism and Dominion–Empire relations as on racism.

Yet race and immigration were not the only concerns. There was the matter of drugs, too. While settling the claims for damage from the riots, King was surprised to discover two claims from the owners of opium factories. In fact, Vancouver had seven such factories at the time. The city regulated the industry, simply requiring a licence and a $500 fee. This offended King’s upright Presbyterian sensibilities and he sent word to Ottawa. His recommendations, banning the non-medicinal production and sale of opium, found their way very quickly into law in 1908. King became the creator of Canada’s first drug law.

It was because of this opium legislation that, later in the year, the Americans again invited King to go abroad, this time to the International Opium Commission in Shanghai. The meeting gathered together representatives from the major countries involved in the trade. King went as part of the British delegation. Again, we see the awkward dance of morality, race and empire. Personally King sided with the Americans, whose delegates largely sought an outright ban on the trafficking of opium. The British had a more worldly and self-serving view of the matter: opium had long been a key part of Britain’s imperial trade in the east, and they needed to consider the interests of Indian opium growers and their allied British merchants who trafficked the drug, especially into China.

King went along on the trip partly to attend the main meetings, but also to try to negotiate an agreement to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada. This was a continuation of his investigations into the so-called causes of the race riots in Vancouver. King and the Canadian government had managed to deal with the problem for Japanese and Indians. Now it was the turn of the Chinese. King wanted something similar to the gentleman’s agreement that Canada had just renegotiated with Japan. In this agreement Japan saved face by privately making a firm commitment to limit the emigration of its citizens but publicly only speaking in generalities. Gilmour tells us that the internal politics of the imperial court in China at that time made a parallel deal impossible and King returned home empty-handed. Ultimately the head tax would continue until 1923 when King, now prime minister, passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, essentially banning all Chinese immigration to Canada.

All of this—the drugs, the racism, the international entanglements—is very much of our moment. These are stories from our past that matter to us now. This has not always been the case. The first volume of King’s official biography, by Robert MacGregor Dawson, was published back in 1958. As official biographies go, it was fairly good at showing King’s warts, although usually these had to do with his personal foibles. The biography covered King’s trip to Vancouver and his international excursions to London, Washington and Asia. Yet when it comes to 1923, Dawson does not mention the Chinese Exclusion Act at all. For an eminent political scientist in the late 1950s, what really mattered from that year was the Halibut Treaty—fish and foreign policy. Or, more essentially, the fact that Canada could sign an international agreement on its own, taking one more small step on the path from colony to country.

It was only in the 1970s that Canadians started to think seriously about the kinds of issues Gilmour addresses here. One important moment came in 1976 when King’s diary for 1945 was opened to the public. When journalists rushed in to see what new revelations about the weird Mackenzie King they could find, they also read in amazement his response to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. King found the whole incident terrifying and deplorable, but he comforted himself by saying that it was “fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.” By the 1970s this attitude had started to become not only anachronistic but also offensive.

How did we get from there to here? How did the racist colonial Canada that Gilmour so wonderfully recreates for us morph into a multicultural Canada whose diplomats can pursue Canada’s own national interest?

On the colony-to-country story, King would play an important role. But when it comes to the transformation of racial attitudes, King was of no help whatsoever. Personally, he could be open minded and tolerant in dealing with individuals of a different race when it suited his political needs, as it did when negotiating with Indian, Japanese and Chinese officials. Yet we know that when King returned to Canada he would revert to the common feelings of his time. King’s governments would not only ban Chinese immigration: they would turn their backs on Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, as late as 1947, King espoused an immigration policy that preserved Canada’s right to exclude based on race. In all of this, King simply bent to the will of the majority. He followed where the Canadian people led.

There is an old story of King’s version of leadership—one he reportedly recounted himself. A flock of sheep are in a field. There are two gates through which the sheep can move, to the right and the left. King said that the true leader does not pick which exit is the best. He waits to see which direction the sheep are headed. Then, once the flock is moving, he dashes in front and leads them triumphantly through.

The Mackenzie King style of leadership is effective. It is a tried and true method of Canadian political success. Arguably it is the style of leadership that Stephen Harper currently adopts: keep the ideological premise close to your heart but never miss a chance to abandon your beliefs if it keeps you in power. But it is hardly glorious. And it certainly does not explain how Canada transformed itself over the 20th century into a much more, if still imperfectly, racially tolerant country.

Julie Gilmour’s book gives us a fascinating glance into the early career of our most successful and frustrating prime minister. At the end of the King years, many Canadians wanted a different country, and a different kind of political leadership to make it happen. How long could a government and a country go on, as F.R. Scott lamented, “[doing] nothing by halves which can be done by quarters”?