Compensate Chinese immigrants fairly: Vancouver Sun's Daphne Bramham
Friday » December 2 » 2005
Compensate Chinese immigrants fairly
Botched attempt at redress has exposed a misunderstanding about the Chinese-Canadian community
Friday, December 02, 2005
There is no other group that Canada tried as hard to keep out as the Chinese.
For 62 years, a parade of governments formulated and enforced laws to
make it difficult and then virtually impossible for Chinese people to
And for more than 20 years, Chinese-Canadians have actively sought
redress for the policies that date back to 1885, when Canada imposed a
head tax on Chinese immigrants.
That was enforced until July 1, 1923 — Dominion Day — when it was
replaced by the Chinese Immigration Act, which should more properly
have been called the exclusion act.
The exclusion of Chinese was only repealed in 1947 under pressure from
Britain, which needed ethnic Chinese soldiers for the war in Asia.
Between 1923 and 1947, only 50 people were allowed to immigrate from
The policies were also cruel. Families ended up being torn apart, in
many cases irrevocably. Not all of the men whose families had sent them
ahead to what was called Golden Mountain could ever earn enough to pay
the head tax required to bring their wives and families.
The tax started at $50, was increased in 1900 to $100 and then to $500 in 1903.
The legacy has been documented by writer Denise Chong in The
Concubine's Children: Portrait of a Family Divided and in a documentary
by Vancouver filmmaker Colleen Leung.
Over the years, while the Canadian government was actively recruiting
Europeans, including my ancestors, with the promise of free Prairie
land, it collected $23 million from 82,000 Chinese. Unlike my
ancestors, the Chinese immigrants were denied the full rights of
citizenship until 1947.
Earlier this year, Paul Martin's Liberal government set aside $25
million to redress not only the wrongs done to ethnic Chinese, but for
Italians, Ukrainians and Germans interned during the Second World War.
Of that, $12.5 million was earmarked for Chinese-Canadians.
That's a tiny fraction of what the government collected in head taxes.
Using the Bank of Canada's inflation adjuster, that $23 million
collected in 1923 is equal to $2.7 billion in current dollars.
But no one was asking for anywhere near that amount.
Since 1984, the Chinese Canadian National Council has lobbied for
redress. It has registered 4,000 head-tax payers and their families and
has consistently asked for two things — an apology and individual
It based its request on a similar agreement reached in 1988 between
Canada and Japanese-Canadians to redress their internment during the
Second World War.
The two things the council wanted were the two things the Liberals said they would not negotiate.
So, Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan bypassed the council and
began negotiating with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians. The
congress was founded in 1991 by Chan, recently elected Vancouver school
trustee Don Lee and others, to play down Chinese human rights' abuses
including the Tiananmen Square student massacre in 1989 and improve
Since then, the congress has provided political support to Liberal candidates, including Chan at his recent nomination meeting.
Congress president Ping Tan — a Malaysian-born Chinese who came to
Canada as a student in 1968 — quickly agreed to a $12.5-million
settlement, even though some of the congress board members criticized
the deal because it contains no apology and no individual compensation.
Last weekend — just days before the Liberal government was forced to
call an election — Prime Minister Paul Martin had planned to to sign
the deal at a Vancouver conference the congress was holding to talk
about what it would do with the money. The conference was paid for with
a $100,000 grant from Chan's department.
Martin didn't sign the deal because of growing pressure from groups
like the CCNC, the National Association of Japanese-Canadians, the
National Anti-Racism Council, the Urban Alliance on Race Issues and
prominent Canadians including Margaret Atwood, June Callwood, Shirley
Douglas, Stephen Lewis, Joy Kogawa, Naomi Klein and Toronto Mayor David
Instead, after brushing past protesters, including a few people in
their 90s who had paid the head tax, Martin signed a $2.5-million
agreement with the congress.
“There is much anger and frustration at the federal government,” says
Sid Tan, the grandson of a head-tax payer, a director of the Chinese
Canadian National Council and head of the B.C. Coalition of Head Tax
Payers, Spouses and Descendants.
“His [Chan's] proposed agreement with the NCCC is unethical and
humiliates the very people who overcame the racist legislation to allow
him to serve in public office.”
The tragedy in this botched attempt at reconciliation is that Canada
has had more than the lifetime of most people to apologize and give
back the money to those to paid the tax.
Vancouver resident Charlie Quon is one of them. He's 98. Another
Vancouverite, Chung Shee Quon, is 100 and still waiting to get a refund
of the money her husband was forced to pay.
They deserve the money. They and their families deserve an apology.
For now, the January election has put on hold the deal that would have
handed millions to a group that has no connection to the head-tax
payers and their families.
The Liberals' botched attempt at reconciliation has exposed a deep
misunderstanding about the Chinese-Canadian community and about how to
redress human rights' abuses. It could cost them votes, and it should.
But after the election, the government must finally right the terrible wrong done to Chinese immigrants and their families.
It must negotiate with the people directly affected. And it must be willing to apologize and compensate them fairly.
To do anything else only adds further shame to a shameful history.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005