Vancouver Sun May 4: “Simple head-tax apology isn’t that simple”
Pete McMartin is a nice guy. He wrote a wonderful story about me and my
Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner back in January 2002 “Toddish McWong marks
Bard’s birthday.” But he still hasn’t shown up wearing a kilt to taste
the haggis won ton, haggis spring rolls, or haggis lettuce wrap at
McMartin’s family has probably been in Canada for about as long as my 7 generation family (I’m a fifth-generation descendant of Rev. Chan Yu Tan. If Pete and I aren’t related yet… maybe we can create some “arranged marriages” so that he too can claim to be related to a Head Tax descendant family. I know our family will be accepting, we already have relatives named McPherson and McLean.
I have embraced Canada’s Scottish history and culture and customs, and even promote Robbie Burns and haggis at my annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner, which even inspired a regional CBC television special of the same name.
But Pete just doesn’t “get” the Chinese-Canadian head tax issue. It’s NOT a race issue. It’s about justice, fairness and all those things for making Canada a better place.
McMartin has written an interesting column (see below) for today’s Vancouver Sun, citing
Gabriel Yiu as an example of a “Chinese-Canadian” with no claims to being a head tax descendant being a spokesperson for the BC Coalition for Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Descendants. McMartin neglects to mention that Harvey Lee and Karin Lee also serve as “English language” spokespersons, and are both head tax descendants.
Harvey’s case for redress is a dramatic story of family hardship and loss. His father paid the head tax and worked in Canada to support his wife and children in Canada, but they could not join him because of the Exclusion Act. Japanese soldiers killed Harvey’s mother when he was a
young boy, and he was finally able to join his father in Canada long after the war was over.
Personally, I admire Gabriel for standing up for human rights and the head tax issue. Much of the head tax story war has been taking place in the Chinese media, and I have no real access to it because I don’t speak Chinese.
I thank Gabriel, Tekla Lit of BC Alpha, and Bill Chiu of Chinese Christians in Action for helping address our Chinese language deficiencies. My born-in-Canada parents didn’t think that
Chinese language would be such a desired skill when I was growing up in the 1960’s. Nobody foresaw that so many Chinese immigrants would still want to come to Canada after such blatant racist treatment and limiting immigration policies from 1885 to 1967.
But there have been recent Chinese immigrants such as Hong Kong-born former
Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan and Malaysian-born Ping Tan, president of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, trying to make decisions about redress such as the now aborted Liberal ACE program and Agreement in Principle. They have been telling Canadian born head tax descendants what should be done, such as NO APOLOGY and that the money
should go to Chinese community projects – NOT direct head tax payers, spouses or descendants. Needless to say, these individuals can be told to go back where they came from.
Pete McMartin likes to play devil’s advocate, and push people’s buttons. I can appreciate that.
McMartin is also expressing the views of many White Canadians out there. One of my own library supervisors who wrote a recent reference letter for me, expressed anger at having to pay out for the “sins” of other people’s ancestors. This is important to address and to help others understand the real issues of a sad chapter in Canadian history and its legacy.
McMartin is clearly generalizing the topic of redress and guilt to many other issues regarding racism and colonialism, and demonstrating that government policies were linked to the prevailing attitudes of the day. Yes, I agree that First Nations claims must be addressed, and
Canada will be better for it. But adding these issues clouds the Head Tax picture, and it still does not excuse the 1907 riots by the Anti-Asiatic League that attacked both Chinatown and Japantown for which reparations were made.
Despite the seemingly complicated issue, there are simple questions:
1. Was it wrong for the Canadian government to place a Head Tax followed
by an Exclusion Act, ONLY on immigrants of Chinese ancestry?
2. Was it wrong for the Canadian government to ignore a 2004 request from
the United Nations to make reparations for head tax payers?
3. If the head tax was wrongfully applied, is not a refund and reparation in order?
4. How do we build the Canada now, that we want to live in tomorrow? By
excluding people and our history, or by acknowledging wrongs and doing
something positive by apology, reparation and forgiveness?
Thank you to Pete McMartin for citing all the reasons for White Colonialism and privilege, that made it difficult for my ancestors to find equal footing in Canada, that gave us a “Chinaman’s Chance” of being found innocent in courts of law, that prohibited us from joining the armed
forces until Great Britain asked Canada for Chinese speaking soldiers, and kept native born Canadians from voting until 1947. You really are helping to explain the difficulties in growing up Asian-Canadian in Canada, and why it is important to give redress for Head Tax Payers and
Seven generations of our family have endured negative identity and racial discrimination for having the wrong DNA, coloured skin, slanted eyes, black hair. Despite this our family
founders Rev. Chan Yu Tan and Rev. Chan Sing Kai were Christian missionaries; 2nd generation Uncle Luke Chan became a Hollywood actor; 3rd generation brothers Daniel, Leonard and Howard Lee with cousin Victor Wong enlisted in the Armed Forces; 4th generation Rhonda (Lee)
Larrabee became Qayqayt First Nations Chief; 5th generation Joni Mar became a CBC television news reporter.
And somehow our family has developed a continuing fascination for marrying white people with each successive generation. There are lots of 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th generations of the Rev. Chan Clan who share Chinese, Scottish, English, Irish, Czech, Dutch, Scandinavian, French, German, Italian ancestries and many more. This is OUR CANADA and they are all Head Tax descendants.
And by the way…. both myself and head tax descendant Sid Tan had also been spokespersons for a for the BC Coalition for Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Descendants, before Gabriel.
Regards, Todd Wong
Below are some comments from friends across the country:
Unfortunately, some writers take a lot of effort to intellectualize this issue.
Gabriel already pointed it out: A wrong is a wrong.
2. If we are unable to apologize for the wrong, then what do we learn from the injustice?
3. What about the families who were harmed. How do we turn the page?
The federal Government enacted this legislation and the federal Government
is an organic entity, existing since Confederation and some would argue even before then.
Trudeau argued that we must be “just in our time” when he refused to redress the Japanese-Canadians. It’s a convenient and somewhat selfish response. But we see this type of response too often from our political leaders.
The fact is that these sins of the past were wrong in their own time; people opposed the
discriminatory legislation “in their own time”. The Chinese Canadian community opposed the Exclusion Act and delegations regularly went to Ottawa to lobby for its repeal. White society was smug in its racism. It was legal to be racist.
So, sorry Pete, no limitations on this one.
long-time head tax redress advocate
I think deep down in his subconscious, McMartin questions why whites should apologize to the coloureds. And it also shows, as he keeps using the word “race” instead of “Chinese people” or “Chinese immigrants.” I am sure if the situation was reversed, for example WWII vets in Japanese concentration camps, he would have demanded apologies a long
Filmaker of “Chinese Restaurants”
Popsicle Pete finds the White Man’s Burden a bit heavy right now. Tell him there’s a sale on wheelbarrels at Rona. And while he’s there, pick up some fertilizer to add to his remarks and for the trees, parks and “public” facilities which the “head taxes” paid for “centuries” ago.
Simple head-tax apology isn’t that simple
Gabriel Yiu arrived in Canada in 1991 from Hong Kong, riding the huge
post-Expo wave of immigration that forever changed the fabric of the city.
He is a bright guy and a liberal thinker, whose thick round-rimmed glasses
are his trademark. He found Canadian society an economic grind when he first
arrived, but he and his wife, Angela, worked hard and now own a small chain of
upscale flower shops.
A political commentator back in Hong Kong, he continued that work here while
building up his business, and has worked over the years in both Chinese- and
English-language media, including The Sun. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully as
the provincial NDP candidate in Burnaby-Willingdon.
At present, Yiu finds himself as spokesman for the B.C. Coalition of Head Tax
Payers, Spouses and Descendants, a local group formed last year to lobby the
Canadian government for an official apology and compensation. Yiu’s advantage is
his bilingualism — he can take the message to both the established
English-speaking Chinese community and the immigrant Chinese-speaking
But why is a Chinese immigrant, who was never affected personally by the
injustices of the head tax, lobbying for an apology?
Well, for one thing, Yiu said, a significant portion of the recent Chinese
immigrant community wants to see an apology. For another: “Wrong is wrong,” Yiu
said, “and if we want to redress it we have to admit it.”
In this, he is without doubt on the side of the angels. But the question is,
who does Yiu mean by “we”?
Well, when you ask head tax lobbyists who it is they want to see apologize,
the answer is not a “who” but a “what” — the Government of Canada. That is, I
presume, an apology from the government would be a symbolic admission of
national historic guilt. Out of that admission would come a moral reckoning.
But this surely is a deflection of the truth. The present Government of
Canada has done no wrong to head tax payees and their descendants, nor has
today’s society at large. (It could be argued, even, that Canada’s inclusive and
colour-blind system of immigration — which brought people like Yiu here by the
hundreds of thousands — has gone some way toward expiating the racist sins of
the past. It could also be argued that that argument is beside the point.)
No, the wrong against head tax payers was committed by the Government of
Canada of a century ago. And it was not really the Government of Canada of a
century ago that committed the wrong. That government was only a conduit for its
constituents and their prevailing sentiments of the day.
And those constituents were white. And those constituents were my and, odds
are, your forebears. And here is where things get very delicate, because race
and ethnicity invariably intrude into discussions such as this. They cannot help
but do so, as much as we might deny it.
This is, after all, more than just an issue about a small portion of the
populace seeking financial redress from the government, otherwise it would just
be a matter of monetary compensation. Here’s your money, have a nice life.
But it is about more than that, or has become about more than that: It is
about ethnicity and racial pride. How else to explain Yiu’s assertion that a
significant portion of the recent Chinese immigrant population are in favour of
an apology, despite never having been affected by the head tax? And how else to
explain my own hesitation about the apology?
As Yiu wrote to me in a series of e-mails we exchanged discussing the
apology: “If there’s one day when ethnicity is no longer an issue, where every
Canadian is simply Canadian, the head tax issue would be irrelevant.”
But that day has not yet come, as Yiu tacitly admits, and despite the
multicult feel-good crowd who insist that it has. We carry our prejudices
Nonetheless, Yiu said, there are also many whites in the coalition who feel
there should be an apology. And I would guess — since I haven’t been able to
find any polls on the question — that the majority of white Canadians see an
apology as the moral and proper thing to do, as sensitive as they have become to
the history of white racism. And probably it is the proper thing to do.
But it would be disingenuous, I would also suggest, of whites to ignore, or
fail to recognize, what was borne out of that racism, or, at least, out of the
circumstances that encouraged that belief in white superiority.
A short list:
Colonialism. British hegemony in North America. The decimation and clearance
of inconvenient aboriginal populations. (Talk about your apologies!) Manifest
destiny. The creation of Canada. The ensconcement of a uniformly white
Establishment. Power. Affluence. An assumption of privilege so pervasive as to
be taken as a birthright.
In other words, the blessed existence that many white Canadians enjoy today
is due to that historical continuum. And that continuum was peopled by forebears
who were hard and driven and, yes, even racist, though they might not have
recognized themselves as being so.
This column is not to excuse them of that, or to absolve them from what we
now take to be their sins. As Yiu said, wrong is wrong.
But while I know what an official apology would seek to redress, I am not
sure what it would ask us to forsake. In that sense, the easiest part of the
head tax issue to address is not the apology, but the compensation. That is only
But an apology exacts a far greater cost. It apportions blame against sins
and motivations seen dimly through the gauze of history. It does so with the
clear-sighted certitude of hindsight.
It also asks: Are there limits to guilt? Does guilt have a past-due date?
And also this: Are we, from our enlightened, privileged present, enjoying the
luxury of condemning our hard, unfathomable past?