Head tax descendants active in Iqaluit, Nunavit – all across Canada!

Head tax descendants active in Iqaluit, Nunavit – all across Canada!

Here's a letter from Gary Gee, a head tax descendant now living in the Actic, in Iqaluit, Nunavit.

June 21, 2006


Your editorial of June 17 on the Chinese head tax apology by Prime Minister Harper fails to offer the kind of wisdom about reconciling Canada’s past racist injustices that one would expect from a respected newspaper that has obviously evolved from a time where it reviled the Chinese as the “yellow peril.”

As one of the more than 4,000 families of head taxpayers in this country, waiting not only for an apology to our community but fair and just compensation for the inhumanity that this brought to the Chinese Canadian community for generations, your paper’s editorial writers fail to understand the immense human suffering caused in the past by the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1923-47.

Yes, to bring it into context as you say, what about the Chinese Exclusion Act? That legislation of 25 years was aimed strictly at one race of people – the Chinese. It affected the same group of Chinese workers who paid the head tax to come into this country, thousands of men and in some cases, child workers.

My grandfather was one of many who spent their formative and adult years, separated from a family he couldn’t bring over and unable to afford to go home. They came to Gold Mountain because they were poor, much like many of  today’s immigrants. They also came during a time when civil war and drought was devastating China and they bought into becoming  “indentured slave” laborers in Canada.

The government stranded this whole group of people for a quarter of a century, many of whom helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway, which we agree led the way to expanding Canada from sea to sea.

In the ‘50s, my grandfather finally reunited with his family, a family of strangers, sir, that he he no longer knew and had not seen for more than 25 years. It was a bittersweet reunion amongst strangers in a hostile land.

That is the impact upon thousands of Chinese Canadian families and if not for the willpower of Chinese and our organized efforts in Canada during the Exclusion years, the community would have perished. It was certainly decimated and took generations to evolve into the community you see today, where Chinese Canadians have made an immense contribution to this country.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, when you would see small rooming houses or hotels in Chinatown with old men shuffling around. Those are the head taxpayers and victims of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some never made it home, not being able to afford to go back or bring their families – dying alone in an old tenement building 50 years after they arrived. Many died during the Great Depression because the Chinese were not allowed in soup lines. We had to take care of our own.

No amount of compensation can atone for the grave injustice perpetrated on this community, and as you say in your editorial, the “unconscionable behaviour” of past governments.

It’s a white elephant to imply the treasury will be broken by compensation to groups aggrieved by past injustices. We know the government will not be that generous.

Compensation is mostly a symbolic gesture to the survivors of those times and their families, who have been proven right and simply want their head tax back.

We are no longer foreigners. We stayed in Canada and we settled just like white Anglo-Saxon homesteaders from Europe.

Chinese Canadians have made our contribution many times over as your “model minority” who have contributed greatly by bringing our cultural talents, ingenuity, ideas and yes, wealth, to this country. We were not and never were the “yellow peril or menace” to Canadian society perceived by a white majority and those in power from Canada’s racist past.

As for other ethnic groups who are fighting for their right to be heard, let them speak. Each community has been affected differently and have their grievances. It’s not about fairness, sir. It’s about justice. All Canadians have a right to be heard, unlike 1923.

The Prime Minister has spoken about maintaining Canada as an open and diverse society. Participating in that kind of society means we can also ensure we have a just society. A just society must address the wrongs of the past.

The fact of the matter is Chinese Canadians fought for Canada in the 2nd World War and lobbied for our right to become equal citizens. We received that a century after we first arrived here. We were loyal Canadians and we deserved an apology long ago.

The social fabric of this country is changing into much more of a multicultural Canada than anyone envisioned from 1923. That is why minorities and ethnic minorities will no longer be silent about what they deem to be unjust and unfair. We are the future of this country and to demand justice is to rewrite a history that was not ours in the first place.

Your editorial does not offer any solutions other than for the government to ensure nothing like the head tax or the Chinese Exclusion Act ever happens again as you say, Canada “fumbles toward a better Canada.”  For those who have lived through that history, I’m sorry.

That simply is not good enough.

Gary Gee

Iqaluit, Nunavut

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