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Unveiling China’s linguistic legacy in Canada 100 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act

Submitted on Wednesday, May 17, 2023

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Museum Studies students worked together with the Canadian Language Museum to put together a travelling exhibit that explores the impact Chinese languages and people have had on Canada’s cultural landscape. 

Chinese languages, which arrived in the country in 1788 with the first Chinese immigrants, are now spoken in every province and territory by some 1.4 million people.   

“The most important thing about our project is that Chinese isn’t a singular language,” said Angelique Phanthavong, who was the lead student researcher on the team. “So, I think it was important for us to highlight all the diversity of those and what they bring to Canada. Particularly there are certain languages that really tell the story of immigrant paths to this country.” 

Phanthavong and two other students worked with the Canadian Language Museum as part of their Master of Museum Studies Capstone Projects Course. Every year multiple museums submit their project proposals to the Museum Studies program. Project proposals undergo a selection process to ensure a wide range of institutional, disciplinary and thematic diversity.  


“This is the first project that the museum is doing that is not addressing a native Canadian language,” said Liam Richardson, who was the lead student administrator on the team.

“There is some linguistic breakdown in our project, but we also emphasize immigration and treatment of Chinese immigrants in Canada,” said Richardson. “We talk about the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway and all lives lost due to that, as well as the Chinese Head Tax and the Exclusions Act. Then we pair this information with census data. So, you can see what the census was like and how it has evolved to be more inclusive.” 

Chinese Canadians have historically faced systematic and legally enforced discrimination imposed by past governments that deprived them of fundamental human rights. A famous example is the enactment of the Chinese Immigration Act (often referred to as the Chinese Exclusion Act) by the Federal Government in 1923. Despite its labeling as an Immigration act, it effectively prohibited individuals of Chinese descent from entering Canada. The Act was repealed in 1947, but during the years it was in force, fewer than 50 Chinese immigrants were allowed to come to Canada. 

team members Angelique Phanthavong, Liam Richardson and Kate Squissato

“One important lesson for all three of us was self-advocating and working towards a common goal,” said Kate Squissato, the team’s designer, pictured on the right with Liam Richardson and Angelique Phanthavong.

“The most important lesson I learnt from the project was advocating for others,” said Phanthavong. “Nobody in our group is ethnically Chinese. So over time, I found myself holding the communities we were researching and speaking to as very precious to me. I wanted to ensure that we respected and did justice to their history and languages.” 

Celebrate Asian Heritage Month 2023 and visit the exhibit until Wednesday, May 31st, at the Canadian Language Museum, Glendon Campus, York University, 2275 Bayview Avenue, M4N 3M6 Toronto, Ontario.