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SD61 apologizes for segregation of Chinese students ahead of 100th anniversary of school strike

In 1922, the school board voted to segregate Chinese students from public schools. But the student fought back.

By Jolene Rudisuela
September 3, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

SD61 apologizes for segregation of Chinese students ahead of 100th anniversary of school strike

In 1922, the school board voted to segregate Chinese students from public schools. But the student fought back.

In the 1900s, the Greater Victoria School Board forced segregation on Chinese students. The students fought back. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily
In the 1900s, the Greater Victoria School Board forced segregation on Chinese students. The students fought back. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

SD61 apologizes for segregation of Chinese students ahead of 100th anniversary of school strike

In 1922, the school board voted to segregate Chinese students from public schools. But the student fought back.

By Jolene Rudisuela
September 3, 2022
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SD61 apologizes for segregation of Chinese students ahead of 100th anniversary of school strike
In the 1900s, the Greater Victoria School Board forced segregation on Chinese students. The students fought back. Photo: Colin Smith / Capital Daily

On Friday, the Greater Victoria School District issued an apology for racist actions taken by the school board a century ago against the local Chinese community. The apology came at the request of Victoria Chinatown Museum Society chair Alan Lowe, who spoke to the board in July about what he calls this “dark event in our local history.”

Decisions by former board chair George Jay and the school board at the time led to the segregation of Chinese students and perpetuated racist discrimination.

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In Victoria in the early 1900s, most Chinese students attended the Lequn Yishu (Sociability Free School), founded in 1899 as Canada’s first Chinese public school, with a small number attending district public schools. At that time, the first stirrings of school segregation were already happening—white parents started a petition against Chinese children attending Rock Bay Elementary School.

District discrimination sparked legal challenges and strike

In 1907, the local school board first passed a motion that required all Chinese students to pass an English exam to attend schools within the district—a rule that did not apply to children of European descent whose first language was not English. After the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association launched a legal challenge against the school board, the rule was changed to only require Chinese-born children to pass the English exam. Canadian-born Chinese students were allowed to enroll in local schools. As Chinese children were turned away from public schools due to the new requirement, Lequn Yishu became overcrowded, and the Chinese Public School on Fisgard Street opened to accommodate more students.

At the time, Chinese students were only allowed to attend the district schools after Grade 4—until the summer of 1922, when the district board voted to extend that to Grade 7. That was around the age that the majority of children left school to work, meaning most of them would not end up attending after Grade 7 anyway.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Lowe told Capital Daily. “That’s when the Chinese community came out in force to tell the trustees that this was not right, this was not appropriate, they needed to reverse the decision.”

On Sept. 5, 1922, the day the order took effect, more than 200 Chinese students from Grades 5 to 7 were called out of their public school classrooms and marched down to a new school built for them on Kings Road. But the children had a different plan.

As the procession reached the school, one of the boys called out the signal and the kids dispersed into the streets and began boycotting the school in protest.

The Chinese Canadian Club, the Chinese Commerce Association, and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association supported the strike.

“It was a one-year-long strike,” Lowe told Capital Daily. “During the one year, the Chinese community actually brought in their own teachers, and they taught the Chinese students everything from English to culture and other types of courses that one would have if they were going to school.”

After that year, students above Grade 4 were allowed to return to the public school system, though it wouldn’t be until after the Second World War before segregation was completely abolished.

Board condemns past actions ahead of Monday’s walk

In a statement, SD61 board chair Ryan Painter said that these events stand out “as a particularly dark incident for our school district.”

“The Greater Victoria School Board apologizes for the actions of its previous Trustees and former Board Chair, George Jay. The racist discrimination that led to this act is unacceptable and viewed with regret,” he said. “We will work with the Chinese community to ensure this history is not forgotten and remain committed to celebrating their immense contributions to the City of Victoria and South Vancouver Island.”

An SD61 committee has been working to rename George Jay Elementary due to Jay’s push for segregationist policies. A 2019 public survey of the issue found 50% of respondents in favour of a name change, 37% not in favour, and 13% willing to support the change depending on the replacement name.

Lowe says the apology brings some closure for the wrongs that were perpetuated against the Chinese community.

“We should have a cultural mosaic within our city that actually is inclusive,” he said. “Segregation wasn’t the way to go, and hopefully this does not occur in our society ever again.”

On Monday, on the 100th anniversary of the school strike, the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society is holding a walk to re-enact and commemorate the strike. Starting at 10:30am, the group is walking from George Jay School to Kings Road, where a plaque will be presented by Painter on behalf of the board of education.

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