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Beechwood Cemetery honours Chinese Canadian history

It’s been 75 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished in Canada

In Ottawa, the graves of over 4,000 Chinese Canadians rest at Beechwood Cemetery. This is the final resting place for many individuals who suffered at the hands of the Canadian government. A result of punitive and racist laws implemented to regulate and control the Chinese population. These laws included the infamous Chinese Head Tax, established in 1885 to tax Chinese persons immigrating to Canada, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, created in 1923 to replace the Chinese Head tax, halting all immigration in Canada from China.  

“We have this entire history of blatant discrimination”

Nick McCarthy, Beechwood Cemetery

“This [section of the cemetery] was built to meet the demand of the people,” said Raymond Lam from Beechwood Cemetery family services. According to Lam, Chinese workers had to finish their designated projects which consisted of the completion of the railway and supporting the gold rush in British Columbia. But when Chinese labourers immigrated to Canada, they had to come alone and were separated from their families.

To commemorate the lost lives and honour the Chinese community, in 1925, funds were raised to designate a Chinese section at Beechwood Cemetery. A monument was erected on May 23, 1937 to celebrate their lives and honour their history.

“This monument is to memorialize the people buried here. Because at that time, they were not allowed to bring their families,” said Lam. The purpose of the monument is to remind Canadians how these people died and the story behind their names.

Raymond Lam locates the monument dedicated to the Chinese community at Beechwood Cemetery

Among the cemetery is a centre piece, the Pagoda, dedicated to remembrance. Built in 1995, the Pagoda honours the community’s ancestors. Today, it is recognized as one of Canada’s distinctive cemetery landmarks. “We won’t forget our ancestors,” said Lam. The Pagoda also serves the purpose of symbolizing the stories that Canadians don’t learn.

The Pagoda is the centre piece of Beechwood Cemetery, symbolizing remembrance to Chinese Canadians

“We want to make sure to celebrate the lesser known people that should be celebrated,” said Nick McCarthy, the marketing director of Beechwood Cemetery. These people include women like Chow Quen Lee, who was a strong advocate for attaining redress and an apology from the federal government for the Chinese Head Tax.

“We always look to celebrate someone a little differently that isn’t official in the history books”

Nick McCarthy, Beechwood Cemetery

On September 11, Beechwood Cemetery hosted a tour of influential women in Canadian history. They highlighted Chow Quen Lee, who died at age 105. She was a pioneer for advocacy and brought forth attention and the start of reconciliation from the Canadian government.

Two of her children, Yen Lee and Yew Lee, were in attendance for a theatrical historical performance and the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the great advocacy work to right an historic wrong.  

A plaque dedicated to Chow Quen Lee’s advocacy and actions to combat historic racism in Canada

Her son, Yew Lee, was a lawyer and Chow Quen Lee, a lobbyist. Together they addressed the historic injustices and wrongs of the Canadian government.

“She wanted to ensure the trauma that was done was apologized for and they could move forward,” said Yen Lee, daughter of Chow Quen Lee. She recalls her mother a progressive woman, wanting her own daughter to have a bright future and strong education.

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