Head tax issues for Chinese Canadian pioneers in Langara College's Pacific Rim Magazine

Yo All. Good article for our side in Pacific Rim Magazine. Take care.
anon   Sid



By Warren Mailey, Pacific Rim Magazine 2005

Sid Chow Tan is a patient man. The human rights activist and director
of the Vancouver branch of the Chinese Canadian National Council has
been involved with the head tax redress movement since it began 20
years ago. “I was a young man when this started,” he says with a laugh.

Since 1984, the CCNC has represented nearly 4,000 Chinese-Canadians in
the fight for acknowledgement and compensation for the head tax imposed
on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923. The organization maintains
that the tax and the Chinese Immigration Act, in place from 1923 to
stunted the growth of the Chinese-Canadian community, caused decades of
economic hardships, and tore families apart for almost 25 years.

For almost a quarter of a century, the Chinese-Canadian community has
kept the head tax redress issue before the federal government. With the
number of living head-tax payers having dwindled to just over two
dozen, a second and third generation of Chinese-Canadians has taken the
lead in a new campaign for recognition and justice.

Sid Tan's grandfather, Chow Gim Tan, was a head-tax payer. He tended
cows in China from the age of 10 to save enough money to come to
Canada. Tan arrived in 1919 when he was 19 years old. Like many Chinese
immigrants, he paid the $500 head tax. He settled in Saskatchewan and
adopted the name Norman.  He became a cook, opened a restaurant,
and developed a love for hockey and cooking wild game.

Norman Tan was a lo wah kui , which translates as someone who is one of
the old overseas Chinese from the poor and overcrowded southern
provinces of Guangdong and Fuijian. He came to Canada in search of a
better life.

The lo wah kui were pioneers of the Chinese-Canadian community. And
they were targets of the Immigration Act, also known as the Exclusion
Act because the legislation prohibited Chinese immigration. No other
ethnic groups were singled out. Tan was fortunate enough to emigrate to
Canada before the
act came into effect.

The Chinese contribution to the building of Canada is without
question.  During the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway,
approximately 17,000 Chinese immigrants arrived between 1881 and 1884
to work on railroad construction. “This was an immensely important
project, and its completion would have been further delayed without
Chinese labour,” says Hugh
Johnston, a professor of Canadian history at Simon Fraser University.
“They were, along with other ethnic nationalities, brought into Canada
to build infrastructure.”

University of Saskatchewan sociologist Peter S. Li concurs. In his
essay The Chinese Minority in Canada , he claims “the usefulness of
Chinese labour in mining, railroad construction, land clearing, public
works, market gardening, lumbering, salmon canning and domestic service
was well recognized by many employers and witnesses who appeared before
a royal
commission in 1885 and 1902.”

After the railway's completion in 1885, the federal government imposed
a $50 fee on any Chinese immigrant entering the country. The head tax,
as it became known, was the government's response to concerns in the
labour sector
and middle and lower classes of British Columbia about the growth of
the Chinese population. The head tax was raised in 1900 to $100, and
then again to $500 in 1903.

On July 1, 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration
Act.  For Chinese-Canadians, Dominion Day became known as
Humiliation Day. Those who paid the head tax were allowed to stay. Many
were men and boys with
families in China. The Exclusion Act meant that they would be separated
from their relatives for almost 30 years. Li claims, “The absence of
wives and family also meant that the growth of a second generation was

Following the Second World War, in 1947, the federal government
repealed the Chinese Immigration Act. Along with this restoration of
citizenship, Canada opened its doors to Chinese immigrants once again,
and many Chinese-Canadians were able to bring their families into the

In 1983, Leon Mark presented his head tax receipt for $500 to his
Member of Parliament in Vancouver. He asked her to help him get a
refund. After the government refused to refund Mark's money, the
Chinese Canadian National Council took up the cause. By 1984, the CCNC
had signed up approximately
4,000 head-tax payers, their spouses or children.

The 1988 settlement between the National Association of Japanese
Canadians and the government over the internment of Japanese-Canadians
during the Second World War showed promise for the Head Tax Redress
movement. But in1994 the government stopped negotiating, and rejected
the idea of  redress.  Little progress was made until 2000.

In December 2000, a head-tax payee, a widow of a payee, and the son of
another brought a class action suit against the federal
government.  According to the CCNC's Redress Campaign website, the
case claimed that the government was “unjustly enriched by the Chinese
Head Tax that was in violation of international human rights that
existed at the time.” The
Ontario Superior Court dismissed the case in 2001. In his ruling,
Justice Cummings commented that the redress issue was a political
matter; it was not a matter for the judiciary. He recommended that the
federal government seriously reconsider redressing issues raised by the
head-tax payers, their widows and families.

The dismissal was not a setback, however. “We knew that it might not win,” said Sid Chow Tan. “But we got the recognition.”

The Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal in 2002. The Supreme Court of Canada also denied the council's appeal in 2003.

In September 2003 the CCNC began the Last Spike campaign, a
cross-country tour to educate and mobilize communities to support the
redress movement. Pierre Berton donated an actual railway spike found
near Craigellachie BC, the site of the historic Last Spike ceremony in
1884. Berton, a noted
Canadian author who wrote the history of the building of the CPR,
endorsed the campaign. In the press release for the Halifax kick-off
ceremony, he wrote, “The last spike marked the end of a nation-building
project in Canada. It also signified the beginning of a shameful era of
the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Let this new journey of the last
spike bring
about the rebuilding of our nation by redressing our past wrongs towards Chinese-Canadians.”

In April 2004, Doudou Diene, the United Nations special rapporteur on
racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, gave
the redress campaign an added boost. He presented a report to the
federal government that, according to Lynda Lin of the Pacific Citizen,
recommended that the government consider making reparations on the head
tax issue.

While the federal government maintains its no-compensation stance,
there have been two private-member motions put forward in the House of
Commons.  Each favours different types of compensation. The CCNC
prefers individual
compensation. Another group, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians desires community compensation.

Manitoba Conservative MP Inky Mark introduced a private member bill in
parliament on behalf of the National Congress of Chinese
Canadians.  Bill C-333 asks the federal government to negotiate
with the NCCC to arrange for community compensation, rather than for

In a recent interview with Charlie Smith of the Georgia Straight,
Mary-Woo Sims, former chair of the BC Human Rights Commission,
criticized the bill for singling out the NCCC as the main
representative of the Chinese-Canadian community. “I think if the
government is serious about negotiating
redress, whether it's with Japanese-Canadians, or now with
Chinese-Canadians, they ought to develop a process whereby the
community identifies who the legitimate agents for that negotiation
should be,” said Sims.

Vancouver East MP Libby Davies recently put forward another
motion.  Private Member Motion M-102 suggests that the government
negotiate with the individuals affected by the head tax and Chinese
Immigration Act of 1923 as well as with their families or
representatives. The motion calls for parliamentary acknowledgement of
the injustices of the legislation, an official apology by the
government to the individuals and their families for suffering and
hardship caused by the measure, individual compensation and a trust
fund set up for educational purposes to ensure that such injustices can
never occur again.

The Chinese Canadian National Council favours individual compensation,
something that Bill C-333 eschews. “It stinks,” says Tan about Bill
C-333.  “Libby's is a better way to go. If we get what Libby has,
that would be fair.”

Too much bureaucratic debate, however, can stall any progress on this
issue.  When the redress movement started in 1984, the CCNC signed
up over 4,000 claimants, including 2,000 head-tax payers. “There are
probably only 20 to 30 left in Canada. Are they waiting for our people
to die?” asks Tan.

A fifth generation of Chinese-Canadians has recently taken up the
cause.  Karen Cho's documentary In the Shadow of Gold Mountain
premiered nationally in 2004. In the film, the 25-year-old Concordia
graduate explores the disparity between the two sides of her heritage.
While her British grandparents were welcomed with open arms, free land,
and instant citizenship, Cho's Chinese ancestors faced blatant
discrimination. She set out to find others who shared similar

On her journey, Cho encounters a handful of characters, including three
remaining head-tax payers, widows of payers and their children, and
hears tales of incredible discrimination. In the film's most moving
moment, Gim Wong, an 82-year-old son of a head-tax payer, tearfully
recounts a painful childhood memory of being chased and beaten by older
white boys. Cho
was overwhelmed by this story. In a phone interview from her Montreal
office, she commented on the number of emotions that surfaced on her

“When Gim was telling me that story, I sat there and cried.” She is
also angered by the injustice of the head tax and the era of exclusion,
especially as it impacted families. “Look at Charlie Quan and Mr.
Wing,” she says, referring to two surviving head-tax payers who were
featured in the film. “They were both separated from their wives for 30
years. In Chinese culture, everything is about the family.”

When asked about the implications of the film, Cho maintains that it is
mainly about Canadian identity. She challenges the commonly held,
Eurocentric approach to Canadian history. “This is a Canadian story and
I think it is important to tell it that way,” she says.

Cho hopes her film will serve as a catalyst for social debate, and will
renew interest in a chapter of Canadian history – one that is
overlooked in most high school curriculums and college history courses.
She also hopes to advance the redress cause. “The bottom line is that
this is a human rights issue,” she said at the post-premiere question
and answer period. “I think that when people of my generation hear of
this, we are less forgiving.
Younger generations will fight for this.”

Undoubtedly, the movement will lose some of its impact when the last
head-tax payer is gone, but Tan does not predict any loss of
momentum.  He views the current Canadians for Redress campaign as
a success and its goals more attainable than ever with a minority
government in power. “I think it is a winner,” he says. “There is more
and more publicity. These things take time, but I think it may happen
before the next election.”

“This is my grandfather's story,” says Tan. “It is one of the darkest
chapters of Canadian history, but also one of the brightest because
they overcame the elements and the people. The lo wah kui are the ones
who deserve the refund. They paid it, so they should get it back first.”

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