Language selector

The W5 Legacy

Page controls

Page content

By Cheuk Kwan

It happened on a bitterly cold day in February 1980. More than a thousand Chinese Canadians marched down Bloor Street from the University of Toronto to CTV head office on Charles Street. I was leading the march, together with Dr. Joseph Wong and Dr. Donald Chu. I sensed that we were making history.

Just minutes before, we were crammed inside a warm auditorium roused by inspirational speeches from rights leaders. Wilson Head, Bromley Armstrong, George Bancroft, Rabbi Gunther Plaut. Household names who came before us.

Elsewhere that same day, Chinese Canadians were marching in cities from coast to coast. Three hundred marched to CTV’s Edmonton station in minus 26 degrees weather. Marchers in Halifax made the city paper’s headlines.

Never before had a docile community risen up to protest a social injustice and to defend their rights. More than 30 years later, the memory is still fresh and the W5 legacy lives on. 

On September 30, 1979, CTV aired a program called "Campus Giveaway" in its W5 newsmagazine. The program alleged that foreigners were taking away legitimate places from Canadians in universities. It made no distinction between non-white and foreign students. That singular national broadcast started a chain of events that forever changed the face and the landscape of the Chinese community in Canada.

The six Chinese Canadian students portrayed in the show soon filed a lawsuit. But the seed of the nationwide protest against W5 was sown in a community meeting held at Toronto's Cecil Community Centre on December 19. At that initial public meeting, the students and community activists showed videotape of "Campus Giveaway" and educated the audience of about 200 to the defamation perpetuated by the program.

That community meeting led to the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee Against W5 in Toronto. Acting with the students, the Committee demanded a public apology from CTV, sought fairness in media, and fought for Chinese Canadians to take their rightful place in society.

In less than three months, a total of 16 ad hoc committees were formed across Canada. In city after city, from Halifax to Vancouver, these groups -- many of them led by people in their late twenties -- were prepared to fight for equality and justice in a very public way. A national campaign was born. The Chinese community, once stereotyped as passive and docile, was now action-oriented and conscious of its democratic rights.

This story, of course, has a happy ending. CTV publicly apologized and the Chinese Canadian National Council was founded on April 20, 1980.

The comprehensive assessment of the development of a community is a very complex issue. It is even more so when we are dealing with a community as fragmented and as diverse as the Chinese Canadians.

One thing is clear. The Chinese community today is more mature than the community of 20 years ago. This breakthrough is the result of synergistic developments in many fronts: civic, social, cultural, economical, and political. In the intervening years, Chinese Canadians have become more self-confident and outward looking.

This positive development would eventually have happened to the community anyway, but the anti-W5 movement in 1980 hastened it. It was that feeling of confidence in ourselves in those days that enabled the Ad Hoc Committee to deal with the mainstream society on equal terms. The outward-looking mentality paved the way for us to reach out to other ethnic communities.

Nothing better illustrated this coming of age than the way the sixteen ad hoc committees fought for justice nationwide. We mobilized grassroots support and turned forged partnerships into mass rallies and demonstrations. We cultivated and built up our media contacts. We called on politicians and brought them on our side. We had the audacity to threaten CTV with a lawsuit and eventually forced CTV into a negotiation. Our lead lawyer at the negotiation, Ian Scott, would later become Ontario's Attorney General.

As one of the original members of the Toronto Ad Hoc Committee, I was privileged to watch the events unfold during the four months of excitement and high drama. My personal experiences during this time mirrored those of the community. I made presentations to city councils and community groups, and was involved in the negotiation at CTV’s boardroom. I courted the press but was sometimes misquoted by them.

Perhaps the single most memorable personal experience was a speech I gave at the Albert Johnson rally in February 1980. Mr. Johnson was a Black man wrongly killed by the Toronto police. The rally, in a Black church, was an affirmation of support from Toronto’s multi-ethnic communities. Representing the Committee, I was probably the first Chinese Canadian to be asked to address the Black community. The emotional speech I gave that afternoon still resonates among many people years later and was the opening that we were looking for to help us build bridges to other visible minorities.

The anti-W5 campaign has spawned a whole generation of social and community activists and we are seeing today the fruit of this struggle for equality. Chinese Canadian activism can be seen on many corporate, public and not-for-profit boards. More Chinese Canadians ran for school trustees and political offices, and won. Some of us chaired the Toronto Police Services Board and held seats at the federal and provincial cabinets. Others initiated social and community projects both within and outside the community. Still others continued to be involved with human rights and anti-racism causes.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it is that we cannot afford to be complacent. After the completion of the Trans Canada Railroad, Chinese immigrants faced the Head Tax and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act. Today, we may have taken our rightful place in our society but we still have to be vigilant, in this post-9/11 world, in safeguarding these rights.

Cheuk Kwan is the Executive Director of Harmony Movement.