Labour Force

New Immigrants at GWG after 1967

by Catherine C. Cole

Changing Immigration Patterns

Chinese immigrants had not been allowed into Canada from 1923 until the federal government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947. After World War II, Civil War broke out in mainland China, leading to an influx of refugees to British-controlled Hong Kong and the island of Taiwan. In the 1950s, a small number of Chinese immigrants were allowed into Canada through family reunification provisions and arranged marriages.

woman sewing in factory In the mid-1960s, there was a labour shortage in Edmonton. GWG wanted to expand but was not able to import skilled needle trade workers. In 1967, GWG lobbied the federal government to lower immigration requirements—then at the grade 11 level as a minimum—to boost emigration from Europe, Central America and Asia, the industry's traditional labour pool. Ironically, the demand to lower immigration requirements was fuelled by competition from foreign imports; GWG wanted to import the workers themselves, not the manufactured goods.

The number of Chinese immigrants to Canada increased significantly after 1967 when Canada adopted a merit-based point system for determining immigration. There were three categories of immigrants: Family, Refugee and Independent. Immigrants who were professionals could come over by themselves, and immigrants who had arrived earlier could sponsor their family members so that they could also immigrate. Statistics Canada reported 45,305 people of Chinese origin living in Edmonton in 2006, the city's largest visible minority population.

Immigration Post-1976

The 1976 Immigration Act further refined the 1967 regulations and category definitions as follows:

  • Family: immediate family of Canadian citizens or residents;
  • Humanitarian: refugees who fit the official United Nations description, as well as persecuted or displaced people who fall into a special humanitarian class set up by cabinet; or
  • independent: people who apply for landed immigrant status on their own and are selected based on the points system that was introduced in 1967, whereby potential immigrants need to accumulate more than 50 points for education, age, personal characteristics, fluency in French or English, and job opportunities in Canada.

Woman sewing in factory In 1975, Communist parties gained control of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, leading to widespread migration from all three countries. After years of fighting, the Communist North Vietnamese took control of South Vietnam, Laos' monarchy was overthrown by Communist forces, and the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, led by the despotic Pol Pot. Many skilled and educated people fled Laos, fearing persecution, a poor economy and, in 1977, drought. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the all the major cities, forcing people into farming. Almost a quarter of the population—1.7 million Cambodians—lost their lives; others escaped to Vietnam or Thailand. Another wave of refugees fled Cambodia in 1979 after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge, nationalized businesses, and destroyed Cambodia's economy. Many Chinese-Cambodians and native Vietnamese headed to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong in overcrowded ships. Those who survived were placed in refugee camps before being sponsored by the governments of various countries, including Canada. Immigrants from all three countries became known as the "boat people."

In 1977, immigrants from other Commonwealth countries were no longer given preferential treatment and equality became legally guaranteed in Canadian immigration policy. As a result, by the 1990s, 73% of Canadian immigrants were from visible minority groups, compared to 52% in the 1970s.

During this period, charities, non-profit organizations, and groups of individuals sponsored refugees, providing a place to stay, finding employment or enrolling them in studies, and supporting them for up to one year. Catholic Social Services was the primary agency in Edmonton promoting private sponsorship of refugees and assisting them in their settlement. Most refugees found work in factories, restaurants, and in other jobs that did not require English. In the 1980s, more and more refugees wanted to come to Canada. By 2006, Statistics Canada reported 10,365 Southeast Asians living in Edmonton; over 90% of Alberta's Southeast Asian population is Vietnamese.

Memories of Chinese Immigrant Workers at GWG: 1960-2004

Woman operating machine The first Chinese immigrants came to work at GWG in 1960, coinciding with GWG expanding its workforce and increasing production. Hang Sau Mah was one of only half a dozen Chinese people at the plant when she started in 1960; it was her first job in Canada. May Wong, who taught English in her home and helped many Chinese immigrants get established, helped Hang Sau apply for work. There were not a lot of options for Chinese immigrants. She said, "It's been better than washing dishes. Washing dishes is painful." In comparison, the hours at GWG were better, and there were more holidays and benefits. When her husband Chee Luck Mah began working at the plant, after washing dishes in a restaurant, he and cutter Philip Wong were the only Chinese men working in the cutting room. He started as a cloth spreader, then became a cutter, and worked there until the couple retired in 1999.

Lee Kam began working at GWG in 1962 when there were about 30 Chinese workers in the plant. Pastor Chow took her to the plant for her interview, and taught her English and how to adapt to life in Edmonton. At the time, there were no Chinese supervisors and all communication was in English. She remembers there being a lot of Italian workers, "we didn't really know English but I would use my hands, talk and laugh, talk like that." She worked at the plant until 1970.

Sum Yuk Wong came from Hong Kong in 1963 and worked at GWG because she "had to make a living... I had a husband, daughter coming to Canada, I needed to earn money. When I first came here, I didn't know many things, so I went there to learn. The factory was really good, they taught you—when you first came—how to work, and they didn't need you to have experience." She became an inspector and stayed until 2002. During that period she took only one break, when her second daughter was born. She also liked the fact that the hours were regular and she had weekends off. Her husband, Tommy Wong, had been an accountant in Hong Kong, but when he arrived in 1969 he applied for a job at GWG because of the language barrier. He felt there was, "not much choice when you come here, lowered myself." He found the work very difficult at first because he was not used to physical work. "They even told me start that day." By then, five of the thirty workers in the cutting room were Chinese. He mentioned visiting Levi Strauss plants in Ontario. "There, almost all of them were Canadian-born people ... They were all the Caucasians working there and it was totally different. They worked really, really slow. Here all of us new immigrants, every one of us worked really fast."

Working at GWG was Jo-Anne Mack's first job when she moved from Saskatoon to Edmonton in 1969 after immigrating from Hong Kong. She said that, "At the time I was applying for my parents to come as immigrant. My parents felt that—my younger brother and younger sister came too—they felt that the city [Saskatoon] was too small. They didn't really like it. Also, because my mother and father—our last name is Mah—there are a lot in Edmonton so they liked to move to here. So, followed and moved all here." After five years as an operator she became an instructor, ten years later a supervisor. Twenty years later the factory closed. Jo-Anne Mack put her three children through university working at the factory. Julie Mah came to GWG in 1973 through Jo-Anne Mack. She worked at GWG for a few years then worked at a smaller factory because there was not enough work at GWG. She returned to GWG 12 years later and stayed until the plant closed in 2004. Although she found working at GWG more stressful than at the smaller company, the benefits were much better.

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Virginia Mah describes coming from Hong Kong to meet her future husband (1:22)

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In 1970, Virginia Mah arrived from Hong Kong to marry a man she'd been introduced to through her parents by mail only a few months before. They married in early August and she started working at GWG at the beginning of September. She had been supporting her parents working at a factory in Hong Kong, so it was very important for her to get a job right away so she could send money home. "My father-in-law said, 'Okay, I take you to GWG. They hiring for sewing operator. I take you down there to apply [for] a job. So, my father-in-law taking me on bus going down to GWG ... right away they interview me and told me I can started working." Virginia Mah later brought her brother to Canada. In 1973, she became an instructor, but operators earned more money so she went back to the line until the pay and benefits for instructors improved. She learned English through night school, to help her with translation and training and, in 1980, she became a training manager.

Woman operating machine By the 1980s, the workforce at Edmonton's GWG was primarily Asian. Suet Lee began working there in 1979. She had been a kindergarten teacher in Hong Kong but was not qualified to teach in Canada. She felt like a second-class citizen working in a factory compared to when she had been a teacher, but had no choice because of the language barrier. GWG was well-known in the Chinese community: "I had heard about GWG's name. So many people told me that this factory was really well known, really hard work. I never dared to go in there to work." After a couple of years, and the birth of her second child, she heard that GWG had a night shift. Working evenings enabled her to care for her children during the day while her husband was at work. She enjoyed the night shift because it was peaceful. When they cancelled the night shift a few years later, the company wanted her to switch to day shifts, but her children were in elementary school and she wanted to be home for them. She eventually returned to the factory when her oldest finished junior high.

Zi Hau Hu began working at GWG in 1989. At the time, the workforce was primarily Chinese, Vietnamese and East Indian. He was one of few men who worked in the sewing room, attaching waistbands to jeans. Later he was given a job in the cutting room, first as a spreader, then as a cutter. He had difficulty learning English and felt that he had been discriminated against as a result and passed over for promotion; eventually he was promoted based upon his job seniority.

Memories of Vietnamese Immigrants

Susan Bui's in-laws were part of the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to Canada, arriving in Edmonton in 1975. She married young and, knowing her husband had family in Canada, looked forward to leaving Vietnam. They arrived in the city in March 1985 and, in May of that year, she went to work at the factory with her mother-in-law. There were 15 to 20 Vietnamese people working at the plant at the time. Although she did not speak English, she did know how to sew, so did well in the test. She was an operator, working on 'band on' before having her second child, then felling seams. After working at the plant for two years, she started saving to bring her own family to Canada. With two children under the age of two, Susan Bui and her husband both took second jobs to save enough money to bring nine people to Canada. They had to save $10,000 for the airfares, plus enough money to support the family when they arrived. She then brought two sisters and a brother to work at the plant. She learned to speak Chinese through her co-workers, and English through English as Second Language (ESL) classes.

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Kim Ngo describes the sorrow of leaving her home in Vietnam (1:16)

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A teacher in Vietnam, Kim Ngo's family had suffered under communist rule. In 1987 she "asked my parents' permission to let me go to another country to live. They did not really like the idea, but then later on they accepted it. So I found some friend and relative who were trying to escape [at] the same time. We were together in the boat, 59 people. It was a hard time to escape." She applied for refugee status from Indonesia, came to Canada, and lived in Yorkton and Winnipeg before moving to Edmonton and starting work at the plant in 1992. She also worked two jobs, seven days a week, and sponsored her parents and sister to come to Canada. She found the work physically difficult at first and did not intend to stay at the factory for long but enjoyed it more when she made friends, particularly when she was promoted to instructor after four or five years. Kim Ngo remembers of the Vietnamese immigrants that "We were about over 20 people. Most of them are Chinese. Some of them came to the plant and they didn't know how to speak English, so I had to learn Chinese to be able to make conversation with the new hires." There were also a few Filipinos and some Laotians working at the plant at that time.

Experiences of South Asian Immigrants

woman sewing in factory Today, Edmonton's second largest visibly minority population is South Asian, at 38,225 people. Born in India, Kulminder Bolina came to Canada from England in 1973 and began working at GWG to contribute to her in-laws' household. She had a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Punjab but was unable to find a related job in Canada. Her sister-in-law was working at the plant and took her to apply. At the time there were a few people from India working in the plant, as well as some Indo-Trinidadian and Indo-Fijians. She began working on buttons and buttonholes, but learned a few operations and was promoted to instructor and later supervisor. She worked at the plant until it closed, but moved to the night shift when her children were young so that she and her husband could share the child care. Her brother and his wife lived next door and they helped out between shifts.

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Sadat Khan gives advice on travelling from India (0:53)

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Woman operating machine Sadat Khan, her mother-in-law and four children came to Edmonton in 1977 to join her husband and other family members who had arrived ahead of them. She had been raised with servants and had to make many adjustments when she moved to Canada. She started work at the plant three months later as a presser; her sister-in-law also worked at the plant at the time. "I wore first day my sari to work. Then [Kulminder] told me, 'you're not supposed to wear, because this is very dangerous, that sari.' Then I go and shop the pant, shirt. And at that time I have to cover myself, so I take my scarf too." Sadat Khan began working on the night shift so she could be with her young children during the day. When Edmonton's finishing centre closed, she became an inspector and later worked in quality control.

When Meena Jassal came to Edmonton in 1981, her sister who worked at the plant took her to apply. "...they were very busy, they were hiring people. And I start working only after fourteen days here [in Edmonton]..."

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