Take second look at history
The Ottawa Citizen
Monday, June 26, 2006
the word “sorry” finally appeared on official letterhead, it was written,
not in English, but in Chinese — a language that many couldn't read. It
seemed that in the government's rush to cobble
together a statement of remorse, no one had a clue that these old-timers
were, in fact, native English speakers.
one day last week, they were accorded the absurd celebrity of “head-tax
country still has a thing or two to learn about cultural labelling.
such minor indignities mattered little to James Pon,
88. The retired engineer happily accepted the apology, even if it was
something of an afterthought. Besides, he was grateful to have lived to see
about two dozen of the roughly 82,000 Chinese who once paid up to $500 to
are still alive. Seven, including Pon, made the
trip to Parliament Hill.
oldest, 106-year-old Ralph Lee, helped build a
nation by building its railroad. The country showed its gratitude by keeping
his family out. Lee never knew his daughter, Linda, until she was a teenager.
Her brother died in China
never having met his father.
Thursday's reconciliation brought a measure of healing to the Lee family. It
was a day when the grand gesture mattered more than the details. It was also
a day when politicians stood in the House of Commons and broke with protocol.
In owning up to a racist past, they ventured halting words in a language that
was neither English nor French.
day after hearing Prime Minister Stephen Harper utter those words, Pon smiled and declared: “I have never felt more
reflected on the historic apology as a VIA Rail train, dubbed the
“Redress Express,” rumbled its way out of Ottawa, bound for Pon's home in Toronto. It was the final leg of a journey
that retraced the route forged by his ancestors.
Pon's grandfather was among thousands
of Chinese labourers who were recruited in 1880 to
do the dangerous work of building the Canadian Pacific Railway.
five years later, when the last spike was driven into the ground, no one
invited them to the completion ceremony. Instead, they found themselves
stranded in a country that punished them with a fee designed to keep their
wives and children from joining them.
1923, that levy was replaced by a law that shut out Chinese immigrants
altogether. Ironically, it was enacted on July 1 — a day that Chinese
Canadians learned to equate with humiliation rather than patriotism.
Pon, then five, and his mother were
among the last to get in. Like Pon's grandfather
before him, his father had toiled to save enough money to find a wife in China.
borrowed $1,000 to cover his family's entry fees and, like many of his
compatriots, became an indentured labourer.
12, Pon was left to fend for himself because his
father couldn't afford to keep him — a memory that still evokes bitterness. Pon supported himself by working in restaurants. At
school, he became a punching bag for children who picked on him.
Pon's head-tax certificate, which he
sealed in an envelope, remained a shame that he kept from his wife and
children for years.
other families, the certificates were brandished as peace bonds or proofs of
payment — a tenuous stake on a sense of belonging. Doug Hum, one of 4,000
children of the head-tax generation, remembered his father shaking a tattered
sheet of paper at him and saying, “You're here because I paid
of fear and powerlessness, some produced the papers whenever there was
trouble. Others, fearing deportation, never went anywhere without them. It
seemed no one realized how much it hurt to live as second-class citizens.
forgotten in the rush to equate a commendable gesture with pandering to the
ethnic vote, promoting victim politics and straining the public purse is that
justice is an elastic concept.
acquires meaning through the accumulation of experience. It requires us take
another look at history, take stock and make restitution, however symbolic.
head tax is a highly visible example of the need to be mindful of how we
conduct ourselves in the present. It's one thing to
say never again — until another group is singled out. Let it be a reminder
that there is a price to be paid for the wounds of the past.
Tam's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email:
Ottawa Citizen 2006