Exploring Canada’s racist history of drug prohibition

The CPR amplified anti-Asian sentiment leading to opium criminalization

a black and white picture of railroads.
BCCDC and SFU health sciences hosted this seminar for Asian Heritage Month. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Olivia Visser, Staff Writer

Content warning: anti-Asian racism, anti-Indigeneity, white supremacy, xenophobia, drugs, and drug-related death

This month, BC set out to be Canada’s first province to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs starting January 2023. The decision is a landmark step towards freedom for many British Columbians, but we can’t forget the insidious history of racial discrimination that characterizes Canada’s drug policy. Shila Avissa and Cherlyn Manderson-Cortes addressed this history in their May 27 seminar, “Railroads, Riots and Reefer: A Brief History of How Drug Prohibition Shaped the Early Asian Immigrant Experience.”

Presented by SFU faculty of health sciences and the BC Centre for Disease Control, this seminar was part of a “larger harm reduction workshop” put together by the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA).

Avissa is an Indonesian social worker and researcher and Manderson-Cortes is a Filipinx clinical nurse educator. Having extensive experience and knowledge of drug policy and its impacts, they decided to deliver this presentation to “speak to the toxic and poisoned drug crisis” currently affecting British Columbians. BC declared its first public health emergency from drug-related deaths on April 14, 2016. Since then, 9,400 British Columbians have lost their lives to toxic and illegal drugs. “Those are just the deaths that we know about since we started paying attention,” Manderson-Cortes said.

Manderson-Cortes was first introduced to the “dark roots of drug prohibition” by Janine Stevenson from the FNHA. Drug prohibition, she said, is “a story of oppression and injustice that intersects with Black communities, Indigenous communities, and in the lives of many other racialized folks.” Manderson-Cortes highlighted that many Chinese workers used to work alongside Indigenous people who “were also exploited in the early days of BC’s natural resource industry.” The country’s first drug prohibition was aimed towards Indigenous people with Canada prohibiting them from consuming alcohol in 1868, an exclusion that continued even after the country-wide prohibition was lifted in 1921.

Honouring this intersectionality, they began the seminar with a land acknowledgement. Avissa showed the audience two photos of səl̓ilw̓ət (Burrard Inlet), describing it as a “deeply meaningful place” to both her and Manderson-Cortes. 

“The land that we are on has been the site of human activity since time immemorial,” Avissa expressed, before acknowledging that most of this land is still unceded. She also paid an important tribute to “ancestors of African origin” who were brought to Canada by the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

To start off their presentation, they spoke about how opium and alcohol were the first substances to become illegal. Marginalized groups have suffered and continue to suffer higher rates of criminalization for drug use than white people. For example, Manderson-Cortes said prohibition made the Chinese community “targets for law enforcement.” According to the presentation, substances like heroin and cocaine were regularly prescribed within white communities in the 1800s. Meanwhile, immigrants were starting to see discrimination acted out on their communities through drug legislation.   

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), which facilitated the immigration of 17,000 Chinese men, paved the way for anti-Asian racism. This in turn underlined Canada’s drug prohibition. Manderson-Cortes addressed the discrimination evident in the disparities among Chinese and white CPR workers. She displayed a recruitment ad which offered white workers $1.50 a day and Chinese workers $1. On top of that, Chinese immigrants had to pay for their own food while white workers had provisions covered. 

After the railway’s completion, there was a racist belief there were “too many Asian workers and too many Asian immigrants,” said Manderson-Cortes. This led to the imposition of a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants, which reached $500 by 1903. When that wasn’t enough, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned nearly all Chinese immigration into Canada by heavily restricting the immigration requirements. The Canadian government’s next, more subtle strategy that targeted Chinese immigrants was the stigmatization of opium, with Vancouver leading the way for Canada to pass the Opium Act of 1908. 

Manderson-Cortes explained opium prohibition normalized racism because it facilitated the mainstream adoption of Chinese exclusion and isolation. The large percentage of Chinese men in BC were scapegoated for introducing opium to Canada and corrupting white women with it — despite the British having controlled the opium trade and popularized it in China. She described prohibition as “the seed from which xenophobia grows, from which paranoia and fear of other cultures grows.” 

Opium used to be legal in the 1800s and was popular among Chinese immigrants, but anti-Asian sentiment was most prominent after the railway’s completion. The drug became a way to justify the targeting that also permeated popular media. The presenters read a few quotations and showed a book cover highlighting the opium stigmatization which targeted the Chinese community. They also used Canada’s first woman judge and famed suffragette, Emily Murphy, as an example of popularized racism. According to Murphy, opium was “an attempt to injure” the white race, furthering the stereotype that Asians brought opium to white people and corrupted them with it. 

“When you stigmatize a substance, you can stigmatize an entire community,” Manderson-Cortes said. Legislators sought to ban opium not because of health concerns, but because of perceived impurities tied to its popularity in Chinese communities. Widespread racism and hatred also contributed anti-Asian riots in San Francisco that led to many Chinese immigrants fleeing the violence by coming to Vancouver.

For Asian immigrants escaping racism, Canada was hardly safer than the United States. Vancouver was home to the Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization led by white men to promote anti-Asian sentiment and lobby for anti-Asian policies. On September 7, 1907, they became a “rightist mob” when they attacked Chinatown, targeting shop owners and destroying property. Their signs read: “For a white Canada.” 

Manderson-Cortes said, “Drug prohibition isn’t entirely about people’s health, and [ . . . ] what it does is support anti-immigration laws and help create new workforces of low paid labor.” Moreover, she said that “disrupting connections between communities” was an effective method of limiting the networking of racialized folks. This is a discrete but powerful form of oppression. 

In the 1960s, Canada targeted migrants who used cannabis as a cultural activity. By the 1970s, there were “over 400,000 convictions per year.” Canada’s history of prohibition lives on in the mass sentencing of members of minority groups.

Manderson-Cortes emphasized “there was always resistance” to the racist, classist, and ableist war on drugs, and “there will always be resistance in the future.” She added this resistance is usually led by those “most impacted by these discriminatory laws,” then gave a few examples of community resistance. 

The South Asian Local Mobilization Outreach Network, or the Salmon Project, was created as a response to the overdose crisis in BC. They offer “life saving education resources” in “culturally relevant ways” that are centred in harm reduction approaches.

Avissa also named a grassroots organization fighting against the war on drugs in Indonesia, the STIGMA Foundation. They offer support to drug-users in Indonesia through various types of community advocacy such as education and community organizing. She called their work a “daily act of resistance and bravery” as drug use is still heavily criminalized in Indonesia. 

Avissa and Manderson-Cortes finished their presentation by encouraging everyone to “stand in solidarity alongside the local, national, and global resistance” against drug prohibition. Their presentation was a deeply informative approach to addressing racism through education and the normalization of drug use.