PO Box 523, Station B,
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Monday, 29 April 2024 11:49

How Immigration Has Shaped Ottawa’s Cultural Mosaic - Part II

We were excited to gather again at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library on Saturday, April 13, 2024, to hear the second installment of Phil Jenkins’ lecture series dealing with the contributions of four immigrant communities to Ottawa. In this section, Phil would complete his discussions on the Jewish community and introduce us to the history of the Chinese community in Ottawa.

The audience was delighted when Phil chose to continue his history of the Jewish community in Ottawa with his guitar and a rendition of the Leonard Cohen song Tower Of Song which was greatly appreciated and an excellent reintroduction to the topic of Jewish history in Ottawa.

Phil told us stories of a number of individuals, the first being the remarkable story of Lillian Bilsky Freiman, who was also known as “The Poppy Lady”. At the outbreak of the First World War Lillian arranged to get 30 sewing machines put into her home and organized Red Cross sewing circles to sew blankets and other clothing for the troops overseas. In 1918 she was tasked by the Mayor of Ottawa to organize a volunteer force of some 1,500 to help combat the spread of the Spanish Flu in the city. In 1921, with growing interest in using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, she crafted Canada’s first poppies in her living room and later became the Chair of Ottawa’s annual Poppy Campaign for much of the rest of her life. She also founded Canadian Hadassah and worked tirelessly for many other charitable organizations including the Ottawa Welfare Bureau, the Protestant Infants Home, the Red Cross Society, and the Salvation Army along with many others. In 1934 she was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by King George V, the first Jewish Canadian to be so honoured. Upon her death in 1940, among the many who attended her funeral were Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the Mayor of Ottawa, Stanley Lewis.

As a teenager, David Mirsky, the son of Ottawa's first rabbi, collected empty bottles and returned them to Brading’s Brewery. By 1920, he was filling bottles with spring water from a spring at the base of Nanny Goat Hill and selling them; he founded The Pure Spring Company in 1925 and it would become the largest independently owned soft drink company in Canada. The company remained in the Mirsky family until the mid-1960s when it was purchased by Crush.

Louis Baker was joined by his brother Jake and opened Baker Brothers at the corner of Booth and Duke Streets. It was the largest scrap yard in the area and survived in that location until the general demolition of Lebreton Flats in the mid-1960s. The business remains in operation, now located on Sheffield Road.

Phil then reminded us of the decision of the Canadian government not to offer sanctuary to the passengers of the St. Louis.

Scribe’s Note: The MS St. Louis sailed from Hamburg on May 13, 1939 bound for Havana with 937 passengers on board, mostly German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. When the ship docked in Havana on May 27, the Cuban authorities only allowed 28 passengers to disembark. Negotiations to allow the others to land in Cuba failed and the ship was ordered out of Cuban waters on June 2, 1939. They were unable to obtain permission to land in the United States, so on June 7 the St. Louis set sail directly back to Europe, not entering Canadian waters. The St. Louis did not contact Canadian authorities requesting permission to disembark its passengers in Canada, but Prime Minister Mackenzie King did receive a petition on the evening of June 7th from a group of prominent Canadians led by historian and professor George Wrong suggesting that sanctuary be offered. At that time, Mackenzie King was on the Royal Train in Niagara and the government was not sitting. He contacted the Undersecretary for External Affairs, Dr. Oscar D. Skelton, to consult with Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, and the Director of Immigration, Frederick Blair, as he “would like to be advised immediately as to powers of government to meet suggestion which communication contains”. Blair informed Skelton that the refugees could be admitted to Canada by having their names listed on an Order-in-Council but advised against so doing. As a result on June 9 Mackenzie King was informed that only people from four specified groups (family, investors, entrepreneurs, and highly-skilled immigrants) could be admitted by Order-in-Council. Thus Mackenzie King was told that the passengers of the St. Louis were inadmissible. Mackenzie King recorded in his diary that the refugees’ plight was “much less our problem than that of the U.S. and Cuba” while Blair wrote “It is manifestly impossible for any country to open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.”

The St. Louis returned to Europe and distributed her passengers to four nations, the Netherlands (181), Belgium (214), France (224) and the United Kingdom (288). The Second World War soon erupted and 254 of the former passengers of the St. Louis would die in the Holocaust, while one would die in a German air raid on London.

Source: MS St. Louis in Canadian Context | Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Phil then began his history of the Chinese community in Ottawa, with its very early beginnings a half of a continent away. The first 60 Chinese immigrants were brought to Nootka Sound , Vancouver Island in 1788 by British merchants. They built a schooner and what was intended to be a permanent fur trading post. An additional 80 Chinese workers were brought over the following year, but soon after, the post was taken by the Spanish and the fate of the Chinese workers remains unknown. There were two major events which spurred Chinese immigration to British Columbia. The first was the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858, which initially drew immigrants from California, but then directly from China. The second was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1880 and 1885. Approximately 17,000 Chinese labourers were employed on the construction of the section through British Columbia. The work was dangerous and conditions hard, resulting in the deaths of between 600 – 700 Chinese workers. The Chinese labourers were cheap and it is likely that the railway would not have been affordable had they not been employed. Although the bulk of the Chinese who remained in Canada stayed in British Columbia, the now completed trans-continental railway served as a means for the eastward migration of the Chinese.

With work on the railway completed, the Chinese workers needed to find another way to make a living. Hand laundry service proved a popular choice as investment was low and the hard work and long hours made it unpopular among white men, though there was some push-back from washer women. The first Chinese Hand Laundry in Toronto seems to have been opened about 1877 with the first in Ottawa being opened on Sparks Street by Wing On in October 1887. The Chinese laundries flourished, 2 more opening in 1889, offering good service at low cost due to the high level of competition. Phil told us that, by 1901, 56 of the 68 laundries in Ottawa were Chinese owned, increasing to 68 of 72 by 1914. They reached their peak at 83 in 1916. Phil explained that those who became successful would often move on to open cafes, which were seen as a higher class of business.

As the number of Chinese immigrants increased, so did the public backlash and the community was subjected to extreme racism and discrimination from the general public and through the press.

The Chinese also fell victim to official racism from the Canadian government with the passing of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, which imposed a $50 Head Tax on Chinese immigrants. This was raised to $100 in 1900 and raised again in 1903 to a staggering $500. Those who paid the tax and so gained entry were issued a Certificate which carried their photo and personal information. This applied to children as well as adults. On July 1, 1923, the Canadian government replaced the Chinese Immigration Act with another piece of legislation with the same name, but more commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act that denied entry to Canada for all Chinese with the exception of diplomats, merchants, students and special cases. This made it impossible for Chinese men, who usually came to Canada on their own, to bring their wives, children or other family members to join them in Canada. It was not until 1947 that the Act was repealed and in 2006 Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized for the discriminatory legislation and authorized token compensation payments to those who had paid the Head Tax, though not to their children.

Phil related the personal stories of a number of the Chinese immigrants to Ottawa, including that of Shung Joe, who came to Ottawa as a teenager in 1913 to work in the laundry owned by his half-brother. He worked diligently and saved enough to return to China in 1919 to marry and later in 1923, to send for his wife Kai Voon. This was a common practice among those who were successful enough to afford it. Kai Voon arrived just as the Exclusion Act was coming into force and it took the intervention of a church official in Victoria to permit her entry. Shung Joe’s own first laundry was in their home on O’Connor Street, follow by a second location on Slater Street before introducing the new service of Dry Cleaning. The couple had 7 children, one son tragically drowning near the Chateau Laurier. The family home was a welcoming place for new immigrants from China and the family would make weekly drives throughout eastern Ontario, visiting with other Chinese families to spread the news of what was happening in Ottawa and what they had heard from cChina. As a teenager in the 1940s, one of the sons, Bill, began working at two restaurants, the Canton Inn and the Cathay Chop Suey Palace, both on Albert Street. In 1950, Bill took over ownership of the Cathay and in 1958, over the objections of then Mayor Charlotte Whitton, it was granted the first liquor licence to a Chinese restaurant in the city. Bill went on to become one of the most important and influential members of the Chinese community in Ottawa, well respected for his leadership, he was responsible for the formation of the Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre, and for his philanthropy.

Phil told us that Albert Street was Ottawa’s original Chinatown, the first Chinese restaurant in Ottawa opening at the corner of Albert Street and Metcalfe Street in 1904. By the 1920s many of the restaurants on Albert Streets were Chinese owned, but catered to a white clientele, employing white servers and had names such as Capital Lunch, Boston Café, Ontario Restaurant, and Harry’s, there being no taste yet in Ottawa for Chinese food. As this changed restaurants such as the Cathay and the Canton Inn, opened by Stanley Wong from Montreal, flourished. Often staff of these original Chinese restaurants would move on and open their own places, such as the Golden Palace on Carling Avenue. In the 1970s, higher rents on Albert Street forced most Chinese businesses to close or move. Many moved to Somerset Street West between Bay Street and Preston Street and now include Vietnamese, Korean, and other Asian owned businesses in what is Ottawa’s new Chinatown.