A nation-wide hunt for historic Chinese immigration identity documents (known as C.I. certificates) is being launched on Canada’s birthday. The project invites families to find and share these aging identity documents which will become part of a major exhibition and archive to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.
It will be the first exhibition in Canadian history that will bring together hundreds of different types of these fragile identity certificates collected from across Canada.
“We selected July 1 to launch this collection process because, for several years, Chinese Canadians referred to our nation’s birthday as Humiliation Day,” said Catherine Clement, curator of the project. “July 1 was the day the full force of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act – also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act – went into effect. It became a day of mourning, fear and anger for Chinese in Canada: flags were flown at half-mast in some cities; mourning wreaths were hung on doors and in shop windows.”
The 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act followed years of ever-increasing head taxes that were levied exclusively on Chinese coming to Canada and designed to thwart immigration. The 1923 Act was a final, desperate measure to slam the door shut on immigration from China. It remains the only time in Canadian history that one group has been banned from entering based solely on their country of origin. For almost a quarter-century, the law stayed on the books and forcibly separated families from one another creating a largely male society of Chinese in Canada.
The 1923 Act also involved a mass, nation-wide registration drive of all Chinese living in Canada. The result was that even those Chinese who were born in Canada were forced to register and were issued an “immigration card,” called a C.I.45. This card contained the footer “This certificate does not establish legal status in Canada.”
The project organizers want to find as many surviving C.I. certificates as possible to help tell the story of this unprecedented time in one community’s history in Canada.
Although tens of thousands of C.I. certificates of different types were issued between 1885 and 1924, only one document was ever printed, and it was held by the bearer. Most certificates have been lost or thrown out, either mistakenly or purposely. Few are found in public archives. The vast majority of surviving documents have been hidden away, for decades, in basements and attics.
“We invite people to contact us if they have any of the certificates we are looking for,” said Clement. “We only need to scan the C.I. certificate. Families keep their original documents.”
“This part of Canada’s history has largely been forgotten. This collection process, the exhibition and the community archive will not only be educational, it also will be a tribute to those who carried the burden of these pieces of paper and survived through this dark period,” added Clement.
To learn more: www.1923-chinese-exclusion.ca/the-project/
To see a complete list of C.I. certificates: www.1923-chinese-exclusion.ca/c-i-certificates/