Victor Wong grew up in a Victoria where he was barred from swimming pools, segregated in the balcony at movie theatres and generally treated like a second-class citizen.
Yet, when he turned 18, Wong volunteered to fight for a country that refused to give him the right to vote.
Today, he recalls the Chinese community held town hall meetings where people questioned why young men should risk their lives for Canada in the Second World War.
“They say, ‘Why should we fight for a country that don’t even want us?’ ” Wong, 88, remembered.
But, as a third-generation Canadian, he argued that if he went overseas, he could come back and fight to be treated like a proper citizen.
“I said, ‘It’s a sacrifice. If we do that, we can come back and demand the franchise.’ ”
So Wong signed up for general service and ended up in India, on loan to the British army, organizing guerilla warfare against the Japanese.
When he returned, he was part of a delegation to Ottawa that lobbied the federal government to give Chinese-Canadians the vote in 1947.
On Thursday, Wong, a grandfather of 13, was front and centre again, as Premier Christy Clark apologized in the B.C. legislature for more than 100 laws, regulations and policies that discriminated against people of Chinese descent since the province entered confederation in 1871.
From the $500 head tax on new arrivals to an outright ban on Chinese immigrants, Clark called the racism of past B.C. governments “a stain on our history.”
“We cannot undo the past,” she said, “but by acknowledging it, by apologizing for it, together we can ensure that we and our children learn from these mistakes and never, ever make them again.”
The apology received unanimous support in the house.
NDP leader John Horgan, who grew up in Victoria, said he never learned about the discriminatory policies of B.C. until he studied in Australia.
“What we need to do is ensure that the history of these tragic events, the events that we’re here to shine a light upon, continues on after today,” he said.
“We need to take the next step and ensure that our education curriculum says clearly and categorically that it’s not all roses and sunshine when we look at the history of British Columbia and the history of Canada.”
Later, politicians approved a motion acknowledging that government polices had denied Chinese people basic human rights, subjected them to segregation, and placed restrictions on their education and employment.
“The house deeply regrets that these Canadians were discriminated against simply because they were of Chinese descent,” the motion stated.
It also recognized that Chinese Canadians “persevered with grace and dignity” despite the untold hardships and that they have made major contributions to the province’s culture, history and economic prosperity.
Victor Wong, who sold real estate after returning from the war, said the apology struck all the right notes for him.
“I heard it come genuinely from the heart, which makes me very happy,” he said. “It’s closure. We don’t want any monetary things.
“As the movie actors say, ‘You made my day.’ ”