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A bizarre piece of history is made in the streets of Vancouver, as Deputy Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King arrives from Ottawa; it’s a brief visit which will accidentally give birth to Canada’s first anti-drug legislation.
King, in town to investigate damage claims made by local businesses during the infamous race riots of the previous September, has been drawn to Vancouver by a number of unusual items, namely, claims for loss of revenue by several local opium manufacturers.
“I desire respectfully to bring to the attention of Your Excellency in Council a matter of serious significance and importance which was disclosed during the course of the inquiry under the present commission,” King will write, upon his return to the capital. “In the investigation of the different losses, a claim was made for $800 by each of two opium manufacturers on acount of loss of business for six days, their places of manufacture having been closed for that length of time in consequence of the riots. I was somewhat surprised at the presentation of claims for losses in such a business. There does not appear, however, to be any existing legislation prohibiting the importation of crude opium, or its manufacture in Canada, and the only restraint upon the manufacture of that article in the city of Vancouver is the municipal regulation requiring the taking out of a license and the payment therefore of a fee of $500 before the manufacture can be carried on within the city limits.”
As it turns out, the Vancouver factories are not the only two manufacturing opium in the Lower Mainland – there are “three or four” in Victoria and another in New Westminster, and, as King will note, with particular horror, “they sold to white people as well as Chinese”.
“This industry, I believe, has taken root and has developed in an insidious manner without the knowledge of the people of this country,” King will conclude. “Its baneful influences are too well known to require comment. The present would seem an opportune time for the government of Canada and the governments of the provinces to co-operate with the governments of Great Britain and China in a united effort to free the people from an evil so injurious to their progress and wellbeing. Any legislation which may be directed to this end, will have the hearty endorsement of a large proportion of the Chinese residents of this country, who, as members of an Anti-Opium League, are doing all in their power to enlighten their fellow citizens on the terrible consequences of the opium habit, and to suppress, as effectually as possible, the trade which, for so many years, has been carried on with impunity.”
The Anti-Opium Act will be passed in parliament before the end of the year.
By the early 2000s, an estimated $2.3 billion will be spent countrywide on drug enforcement.
IMAGE: A cartoon from B.C. Saturday Sunset, featuring opium-smoking “Chinese”. Image courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library.