What many call Canada’s first drug law

In 1907, there was a race riot in Vancouver’s Chinatown. A bunch of white people, threatened by the arrival of a boat of Japanese people seeking work, rampaged through Chinatown (because racists discriminate, indiscriminately).

The resulting property damage led to a commission of investigation by the Deputy Minister of Labour, a man named William Lyon Mackenzie King.  You may know him as Canada’s longest serving prime minister, who had some weird quirks, but before that he was Deputy Minister of Labour. He arrived to investigate the damage and make repayments to businesses.

In the course of his investigation, he had claims from several businesses that refine raw opium into its smoking form. Now, opium was not itself illegal and smoking opium, generally a habit of a subsection of Chinese workers, was also not illegal. But people were concerned about it, and King thought this was something worth investigating further.

Urged by some local Chinese businessmen and other respectable Chinese citizens, and also knowing that the prime minister had already been asking questions about opium importation, King initiated his own investigation into the state of opium sales and use in the area.

What resulted was this report, which is often seen as the single event, and a racist one at that, that led to Canada’s Opium Act, and the criminalization of drug use. The story is much more complex, (and I have written extensively on it here) and we historians don’t all agree, but suffice it to say that by the first decade of the twentieth century, drugs and their habitual use were increasingly coming under scrutiny by concerned citizens around the world.  Those Chinese business men were concerned about opium smoking by their compatriots, just as non-Chinese people living in Vancouver (and elsewhere) saw this as a scourge of bad Chinese behaviour.

Yet peel it away, and you see that the opium use of Chinese people was not a general activity, some have made convincing arguments that it was really not as degrading as observers have claimed, and opium itself had been forced on China by the British government decades earlier. That is just one element of a very complex history, intermingling race, class, and ideas of national strength in the degradation of the young.  Because long before opium was rendered illegal nationally, provinces had placed it under strict control through provincial pharmacy legislation. But that is another story.

WLM King – 1908 – Suppression of Opium REPORT

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