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History of intolerance

Our past is littered with intolerance.

On Wednesday, Wendy Vaughan gave a presentation at the Cochrane Museum about her ancestors, the Zuccalo family, Italian immigrants who homesteaded near Cochrane in 1910.

Her stories, other than a great way to peer into our community's past, is a reminder of how people from around the world contributed to the building of this great nation, an important message as concerns over immigration are widespread in both Canada and the United States.

To begin, this is not a message about how Canada should indiscriminatly open the borders to everyone who wishes to come here, checks and balances are important to for national security. However, it's important to remember that many of the people we welcome today originally faced violence, persecution, religious oppression and even murder simply because of who they were.

Vaughan told us of how her family faced racism in the early days, being refered to as Daigos (a slur of the age that is believed to reference employers hiring immigrants fresh off the boat and hiring them as the "day goes"). In the United States, Italian immigrants encountered even more severe intolerance. They were percieved as criminals and Catholicism was distrusted and feared in a nation historically Protestant - until 2012, Protestants made up the majority of US faiths. In fact, the largest lynching in US history was when 10 Italians were killed in New Orleans after they were found not guiltty of murder. So bad was the discontent toward Italians in the US that it coined the term anti-Italianism.

Later, during the Second World War. Italian Canadians and Japanese Canadians, many with no political affiliations, were placed in internment camps and classified enemy aliens, something the Canadian Government later apologized for.

Japanese and Italian immigrants were not the only people to face hatred when they first came to Canada. As many as 15,000 Chinese temporary workers were hired - due to difficulty finding labour in BC - to help build the last leg of Canadian Pacific Railway. During the construction, it is estimated 600 Chinese workers, who worked in unsafe conditions and for little pay, died for their efforts.

Despite the harsh conditions and ill treatment, Chinese immigration continued in tandem with an influx of Japanese immigrants. The trend spawned a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment from both the public and the government.

A 1902 Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration called Chinese "unfit for full citizenship" and "so nearly allied to a servile class that they are obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state." Rev. Leslie Clay, who was adamant on the Japanese and Chinese people's inability to "assimilate" to Canada reported to the commission that "Canada would be strengthened by exclusion of the Chinese race." Much of the disdain expressed was due to religion and economic fears.

There are numerous other examples of racism, bigotry, religious intolerance and fear in our immigration history - post First World War protests against the migration of German-speaking Hutterites and Mennonites and Russian-speaking Doukhobors for example.

Today we see reminders of that past in the anti-immigration sentiment that seems to be growing ever more common.

Basing opinions on stereotypes and fear historically has always proven to be ignorant and lazy. Unfortunately, not before causing significant pain and harm to those just trying to find a better life.