Vancouver Sun: Redress train rolls by ghosts of the past

Here's an article on the Redress Train, with interviews by Sun reporter Ian Mulgrew….

Monday Â» June 19 Â» 2006
 

Redress train rolls by ghosts of the past
 
Ian Mulgrew
Vancouver Sun


Aboard the Head Tax Redress Train
As
the transcontinental train clattered eastward through the Rockies,
Toronto's Susan Eng entertained tourists with stories of the 22-year
struggle by Chinese Canadians for redress over the long-gone
discriminatory head tax.

More time, Eng told them, would have
allowed the groups involved to better organize the response to Prime
Minister Stephen Harper's surprise announcement last week that he would
apologize for the unique penalty imposed on the Chinese more than a
century ago.
“It would have been nice along the way on this
trip to commemorate the thousands of Chinese workers who gave their
lives to build the railway,” Eng said.

But the train rumbled
through Kamloops at midnight and most of the sites appropriate for a
ritualistic nod to the ghosts of the past were also shrouded in
darkness as the train sped by.

Later, the
observation car filled with “ahs” at the appearance of Thunder Falls on
the opposite side of mirror-like Moose Lake near the B.C.-Alberta
border.
“Wow,” Eng echoed, watching the spectacular spires
and rugged ranges through which her ancestors helped carve and blast a
steel path.

She said she hopes this thrown-together trip will
nevertheless focus Canadians' attention and help them understand why
the prime minister's decision means so much to the minority community.

James
Marr, 94, and his family had only two days notice before they boarded
the Canadian in Edmonton late Saturday for the trip to Ottawa.

“He's
quite overwhelmed,” daughter Lily Welsh said of her dad, who in 1923
was one of the last Chinese immigrants let into Canada until after the
Second World War. “This is just such a once-in-a-lifetime event. He
never thought he would see the day.”
Marr sat in
his wheelchair smiling broadly, his eyes gleaming as the verdant prairie rolled by.

Gim Wong and his wife Jan were similarly awed by the grandeur of the landscape and the attention of the media.

“I'm overwhelmed, just overwhelmed,” repeated the 83-year-old Wong, whose late father paid the tax.

The
Toronto-born co-chairwoman of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax
Payers and Families, Eng is riding the rails with her mother Chuey Eng
in memory of her late father Tong, who paid the fee to enter the
country in 1919.

“This railway is part of the mythology of Canada,” Eng said as the Via train gently rocked its way across the continent.

“Every child learns that in our schools — now they will also learn about the Chinese indentured workers who did the hard jobs.”

Although
the Chinese were courted and welcomed to help construct the CPR, the
federal government shunned them after it was completed in 1885.

Those who were landed faced rampant, manifest discrimination and sporadic violence by the turn of the 20th century.

They
might have played a key role in building the Canadian Pacific line that
ushered B.C. into Confederation, but the Chinese were not even invited
to the celebration marking its finish.

Of the 82,000 or so
estimated to have paid the head tax — imposed from 1885 until 1923 to
staunch immigration — there remain only a score of aged survivors such
as Marr and perhaps 200 of their spouses.

There are, though,
an estimated 4,000 descendants, several hundred families whose
ancestors paid the fee that was as high as $500.

Eng and
eight others set out Friday from Vancouver, and were joined by another
five, including Marr, in Edmonton. Two found the travel too onerous and
disembarked, hoping to fly to Ottawa.

None of the abiding ironies of the journey are lost on the participants.
They
even carry a Last Spike, one of the souvenir steel pegs distributed at
the initial ceremony marking the historic moment when the eastern and
western crews laying down the Canadian Pacific line met.

The
spike was a gift to the redress campaign from the late author, Pierre
Berton, whose books documented the building of the railway and its
importance to the building of the nation.

Eng plans to bring it to the ceremony Thursday when Harper will deliver on behalf of Canadians the long-overdue “sorry.”

Though
the tax was abolished in 1923, from then until 1947, Canada simply
refused entry to Chinese immigrants and denied their families the right
to reunite.

The hardships that caused for many remain a
caustic memory discussed among those on the trip — which proved a
chance for those involved to strike up new friendships and share
emotional bouts of heart-felt reminiscence about family and friends
long gone.

“My father tried to bring us here after Japan
invaded China in 1937, but the act wouldn't allow it,” recalled Howe
Chan, of Richmond, his eyes welling as he fingered a faded photograph.

“My
brother died of tuberculosis before the Japanese surrender and my
sister died of meningitis a month before I came here. I didn't see my
father from the age of one to 14 — to me he was a total stranger when
I arrived here.”

Like others on the train, he was
flabbergasted by Harper's decision — a staggering symbolic gesture no
one in the community expected. He scrambled to ensure he was aboard the
so-called redress train.

imulgrew@png.canwest.com

© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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