Even the phlegmatic Mackenzie King was, as he said, “somewhat surprised” by the turn of events that led him, in 1908. to make a formal inspection of two Vancouver factories producing opium for addicts throughout Canada.
In September 1907. white mobs, incited by the Asiatic Exclusion League, surged through Vancouver's Chinatown, smashing shop windows and terrorizing the inhabitants. The following spring, King, who was then deputy minister of labor, was appointed as a one-man royal commission to hear and evaluate the Chinese claims for damages.
King was impressed by the honesty of the Chinese, remarking in his report that they had "exercised moderation and a sense of fairness” in estimating their business losses, and he recommended payment of $25,990 by the federal government. But the proprietors of two opium factories asked for $600 compensation each.
"I was somewhat surprised at the presentation of (these) claims,” he wrote. It was a revelation to him that the opium factories operated quite legally and were, in fact, licensed by the city for an annual fee of five hundred dollars apiece. There were, too, he discovered "three or four” opium factories in Victoria and one in New Westminster, "all of which were doing an extensive business.”
King investigated the claims thoroughly and the owners of the
two plants proudly showed him the whole process of manufacturing opium. And. anxious to have King validate their claims, they each provided him with a profitand-loss statement.
One plant, which had been in operation for ten years and employed ten workers, did a gross business in 1907 of one hundred and eighty thousand dollars and realized a net profit of twenty thousand. Its expenses included $5,280 for wages and $1.080 rent.
The other plant, though longer established and employing more men. showed a smaller profit, partly because it paid higher wages.
Though the city of Vancouver obviously looked upon opium factories as legitimate business enterprises. King was shocked by his discovery. Not only did he advise against payment of the claims, he also urged the government to pass legislation at once to achieve "the eradication of an evil which is not only a source of human degradation but a destructive factor in national life.”
In less than a month, on July 1, 1908. the first Canadian legislation on narcotics was passed. This was the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, which made it illegal to import, manufacture, or sell opium, or to possess it for sale. Later, in 1911. when he had become minister of labor, King had parliament strengthen the act by banning the mere smoking of it.
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