"Out of Many Kindreds and Tongues": Racial Identity and Rights Activism in Vancouver, 1919-1939
This dissertation examines “race” politics in Vancouver during the interwar period as one origin of human rights activism. Race-based rights activism is a fundamental element of the modern human rights movement and human rights consciousness in Canada. The rhetoric of race-based rights was problematic from its inception because activists asserted equality rights based on an assumption of racial difference – a paradox that persists in human rights rhetoric today. While the late interwar period marks the origin of modern rights rhetoric, it also reveals a parallel turning point in the history of “race.” The racial categories of “Oriental” and “Indian” originated as discursive tools of colonial oppression. But during the interwar period, these categories were being redefined by activists to connote a political identity, to advocate for rights and privileges within the Canadian nation. While many scholars interpret the driving force behind the Canadian “rights revolution” as a response to the work of civil libertarians and the events of the Second World War, I argue that changing interpretations of rights were also a result of activism from within racialized communities. Interwar Vancouver was a central site for Canadian “race” politics. This type of political activism manifested in response to a range of different events, including a persistent “White Canada” movement; the Indian Arts and Crafts revival; conflict over the sale of the Kitsilano Reservation; the 1936 Golden Jubilee celebrations; sustained anti-Oriental legislation; and a police campaign to “clean up” Chinatown. At the same time, economists and intellectuals in Vancouver were beginning to recognize the importance of international relations with Pacific Rim countries to both the provincial and national economies. When “whiteness” was articulated by businessmen and politicians in City Hall, it was most often used as a means of defending local privileges. In contrast, the “Indian” and “Oriental” identities that were constructed by activists in this period were influenced by transnational notions of human rights and equality. The racial identities that were formed in this local context had an enduring influence on the national debates and strategies concerning rights that followed.