Buddhisms in Diaspora: The Canadian Context of Chinese Buddhism
- Paul CrowePaul CroweDepartment of Humanities, Simon Fraser University
Any discussion of Chinese Buddhist diaspora communities in Canada must account for the broader context within which they have been subsumed. To a great extent the timing and nature of Chinese Buddhist activity in Canada was determined by a legacy of racism and harsh immigration laws that were not fully reformed until the late 1960s. The first significant flow of Chinese migration to Canada began in the mid-19th century, commencing with gold rushes in California and British Columbia during the 1850s. Following this, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1881–1885), spanning a distance of approximately 4,700km between Montréal, Québec, and Port Moody, British Columbia, provided the impetus for a subsequent wave of Chinese migration for the purpose of providing rail construction labor on Canada’s west coast. Despite the presence of significant numbers of Chinese in Canada, there is very little evidence of Chinese Buddhist practice and certainly practice within institutional settings prior to the 20th century. Nineteenth-century Chinese religious activity, such as it was, took place in the context of centers serving as clan shrines with altars dedicated to local deities linked to clan home regions. Buddhist figures mixed with popular deities were associated with clan rituals informed by a cyclical calendar of rites. Development of the critical social mass needed for support of Buddhist temples and centers was severely curtailed by an absence of a basic supporting family structure, as the Chinese population was virtually all male through 1885. Subsequent modest population gains made in the first decades of the 20th century were reversed with passage of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. Historically, Chinese religious activity has had a strong public dimension that includes public, and often outdoor, festivals. This, combined with the distinct appearance associated with Buddhist architecture, would make Chinese Buddhist communities’ institutions and practices conspicuous during times when they were viewed with widespread hostility. Relegated to “Chinatowns,” there was little support for building Buddhist institutions and every reason not to make such conspicuous and dangerous cultural gestures. Following World War II, and coincident with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada was a signatory, things began to change for the better. In 1947 the Chinese were finally able to vote, though immigration legislation remained deeply racist. In 1967 Canada’s Liberal government under Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919–2000) inaugurated the point system, permitting people to qualify for landed immigrant status without reference to their particular country of origin. In the same year this change was made the community roots of the first Chinese Buddhist institutions were established in Vancouver and Toronto. Major development of Buddhist institutions did not begin to gain any real momentum until the mid-1980s, with a significant increase in Chinese migration from Hong Kong. This accelerated as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) drew closer. Significant social networks and an increase in economic resources finally made the purchase of land and the construction of Chinese Buddhist temples a reality. Canada’s demographics underwent a dramatic transformation as European migration that had peaked in the mid- to late 1970s was equaled and then eclipsed by migration from East Asia. In Canada, Pure Land Buddhist organizations such as Ling Yen Mountain Temple and Gold Buddha Monastery, with roots in Taiwan and the United States, and International Buddhist Temple, with roots principally in Hong Kong, led the way in the emergence of Chinese Buddhist diaspora communities. Through the 1990s Taiwan-based Dharma Drum Mountain, which provides both Pure Land ceremonies and Chan teaching, established itself in Vancouver, as did Tung in Kok Yuen, an organization originating in Hong Kong. A significant increase in PRC migration, concentrated in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver, did not bring with it any significant institutional ties, but the new immigrant population did provide a constituency from which temples could draw new members, though they competed in this regard with Christian churches. Through the early 21st century Chinese migration numbers have remained robust, and Chinese Buddhist communities in many cases continue to consolidate and grow with deepening and expanding local community roots and increasingly strong international ties and outreach.