April 27, 2006
Stakes raised on racist head tax
By JOHN GLEESON
The ground is shifting underfoot on the Harper
government as it tries to deliver closure on the thorny issue of the Chinese
head tax. And the political stakes couldn't be higher.
For a generation, Chinese-Canadians have been
lobbying the federal government for an apology and some form of restitution
to survivors of the blatantly racist head tax of the late 1800s and early
1900s. The Harper government signalled in its throne speech earlier this
month that a formal apology from Ottawa
was on the table. A compensation deal is in the works also — but that's
where the situation has become a little dicey.
With only an estimated 200 surviving head tax payers
and their spouses, the restitution element of redress was seen as largely
symbolic. Now, however, some Chinese-Canadians want compensation also paid to
the estates of head tax payers whose adult children are still alive.
That would bring the number to “4,500
tops,” says Susan Eng, co-chair
of the Ontario Coalition
of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families.
Eng, in a phone interview from Toronto,
said the change in focus comes after last week's series of public
consultations between federal officials and affected Chinese-Canadians in major
cities (the Winnipeg
session is this Sunday).
The meetings attracted descendants of the head tax
payers “by the hundreds,” said Eng, who admitted she was skeptical
of the hastily arranged consultations at first but, much to her delight,
found them to be “a true exercise in direct democracy” for the
people who attended.
“Some of these people have waited 20 years
without any government ever listening to them before this. And they left very
Eng's reading of the Conservatives is that there is
finally a government in Ottawa
that “gets it.”
“Both Jason Kenney
(parliamentary secretary to Harper) and (Heritage Minister) Bev Oda described the head tax and Exclusion Act
as racist legislation. That was a real step forward from what we heard from
politicians in the past. It was always 'a stain on our history,' 'a dark
chapter of our past' — crap like that. But now they're calling it what it
“Because it was sensitively handled, it really
did have an impact on these people.”
What the people told the politicians was that the
children of the head tax payers also paid a high price because of Canada's
racist policies — not only did their parents paying the $500 tax affect them
directly but many were themselves subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which
kept them separated from a parent in Canada who had ironically paid the head
tax to get here.
“The years of separation and the tragic stories
have been quite moving,” Eng said.
No specific amount of restitution has been
universally endorsed by Chinese-Canadians. Some have asked for $20,000 per
person — but that was when they were only looking at compensating the
handful of survivors. Eng said no one expects to get the full value of the
money back (at the turn of the last century, $500 would buy two building lots
and insisted that beyond the money, “it's the dignifying of the process
that's really important.”
Eng was gracious enough to ask my opinion as a
newspaper editor about the public
response to such an “upping of the ante.” I told her frankly it
would be a hard sell among some Canadians who have given up trying to keep
track of who's being compensated how much for what historic sin this time.
But I also told her that including the descendants
was the honourable thing to do and they should go for it. That generation did
pay dearly and they should get something back in return.
And my unsolicited advice to Stephen
Harper is to go for it, too. Not only will it be fair and
just, but it will potentially shift key ridings in Toronto
from the Liberals and NDP to the Conservatives in the next election. A
million strong, Chinese-Canadians can potentially help hand the Conservatives
a majority government.
That's a nice fringe benefit from merely doing the