“Head Tax Apology is Only First Step” – Prof. Henry Yu

“Head Tax Apology is Only First

Prof. Henry Yu,
Department of History, University of British Columbia

The announcement this week by Prime Minister
Stephen Harper of a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for the injust Head Tax
imposed between 1885 and 1923 was an important symbolic act. As a historian who
teaches and researches the history of Chinese migrants to Canada at UBC, and as
a descendent myself of Head Tax payers, I welcome this important gesture as a
step towards the healing and reconciliation with a racist past that Canada still
sorely needs. However, in extending compensation only to the handful of
those still alive who paid the onerous Head Tax, Parliament missed an
opportunity to reconcile the long troubled past of Canada’s treatment of Chinese

I was born and raised in Canada,
and was fortunate to know as a child my grandfather, Yeung Sing Yew, who paid
$500 (over a year’s salary at the time) in Head Tax as a 13-year old migrant in
1923, months before Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which forbade any
further Chinese immigration. His father before him had come to Canada to help
build the railroads, and his older brothers were pioneers in B.C. who worked in
mines, grew produce, owned grocery stores, and built lumber mills. He followed
them in their pioneering activities, and then for over thirty years, my
grandfather worked as a butcher on CPR ships that cruised between Vancouver and
Alaska. My grandfather lived almost his entire life in Canada, only returning to
China to marry, and was forced to leave his pregnant wife behind in China
because of Canadian Exclusion laws. These generations of split families were the
direct legacy of Canadian legal racism. His own father had left him and his
brothers in China as children because he could not afford to bring them over
until they were old enough to work and help pay off their own Head Tax payments.
When my grandmother and mother were finally able to join my grandfather in
Canada, just before I was born, it was an emotional reunion. She had never known
a father growing up, and he had been deprived of knowing his own child–my
mother was 26 years old the first time she met her father. Perhaps he took a
special interest in his grandchildren because of what he had missed: I remember
walking as a 4 year old with him to Chinatown and his pride in showing off a
grandchild to his friends. Most of them had lived a similar life, and the look
of joy in their faces as they gathered in the café to play with me spoke volumes
about their own missing children and grandchildren. Some of them were able to
bring their wives and children to Canada after the Immigration Act of 1967 made
it easier to reunite families (the large wave of Chinese who came to Canada in
the 1970s contained large numbers of these family unifications), but many of
them lived out their days in Chinatown flophouses as lonely old men, bereft of
wives because immigration policy had kept Chinese women out and blocked them
from having relationships with white women because of racism.

I think it is
entirely right that Canada as a nation formally apologizes for its treatment of
men like my grandfather and his friends. It is long overdue, since the
movement for such an apology is almost half a century old, and if it had been
made in a timely fashion, many more of those who paid would be alive to hear
I wish my grandfather had lived to hear Canada say “We are sorry.”
As a child, I remember him showing my mother his Head Tax certificate and
explaining the years of hard work it took him to pay it off. He knew it had been
injust, recognized that nobody except the Chinese had been required to pay, and
an apology while he was alive would have had immeasurable meaning. He knew the
racism that had singled out the Chinese–he lived it every day of his life as a
second class citizen in Canada–but materially he knew it as he struggled to
repay his debt. The governments of Canada and of British Columbia split the $23
million proceeds from the Head Tax (well over $1 billion in today’s money), and
it represented a significant proportion of BC’s provincial revenue in its early
history. Canadians enjoyed the benefits of Chinese labor not only because of
their work on the railroads and in lumber mills, farms, mines, grocery stores,
restaurants, and other industries–everyone else benefitted directly from the
infrastructure that was built using Head Tax revenue: the roads and sewers, but
also the schools and hospitals, most of which Chinese Canadians were not even
allowed to use because of “whites only” policies.

As we move forward from
this historic step in addressing anti-Chinese racism, I would urge my fellow
Canadians to reconsider and reconcile with our past.
Our national
history still excludes the Chinese just as our national policies did,
recognizing them only for being here during the Gold Rush and helping build the
trans-Canada railroad. What were they doing the rest of the time? My
grandfather, like his father and brothers, lived and worked in Canada during the
rest of that time, helping build it under incredible duress. Most European
settlers came to the west coast of North America to find the Chinese already
there. Before the railroad, it was easier for the Chinese to cross the Pacific
in a ship than for Europeans to cross North America. The irony of the Chinese
helping build the transcontinental railroad is that it made it easier for
trans-Atlantic migrants to come to the Pacific coast. Our history is wrong. The
story we usually hear is that anti-Chinese agitation centered around the claim
that the Chinese came late and “took” the jobs of whites. In fact, the complete
opposite was true. Anti-Chinese movements began as European settlers arrived to
find Chinese, First Nations and others (such as Japanese and South Asians) well
settled in a Pacific British Columbia. The rhetoric was that the Chinese “took”
jobs away from “whites”; the reality was that “whites” wanted to take jobs away
from the Chinese who were already there, just as they wanted to take the land
from the First Nations people who were already there.

Redress for the Head Tax
that is limited to those handful of survivors and their wives who actually paid
the Head Tax is like settling Native land claims by giving back stolen land only
to those First Nations people who are still alive from when the land was first
We all live with the historical legacies of white supremacy in
the form of legal policies such as land appropriation, immigration exclusion,
and the revenue generated from the Head Tax. We have all either benefitted or
suffered from this history in the forms of privilege that it granted or denied
our ancestors, and the legacies of the inequity did not go away with the death
of my grandfather, his brothers, nor his friends.

My mother loves Canada—for the
last four decades it has given her a home, given her the education of her
children, and given her hope that there is a place that strives for a better
world. She does not want the money paid so onerously and unjustly by my
great-grandfather, my grandfather, and his brothers. But symbolically, should
she not decide how to redress the wrong that was committed? Rather than
a government committee, or even a panel of historians and “experts” such as
myself, should not she and others who felt directly the legacies of that wrong,
decide how to materially address the financial redistribution of that tainted
money (even if Canada were to only put aside the actual amount of $23 million
collected, it’s present value would be a pittance in comparison to it’s original
There are many proposals for how to redress the wrong—a fund
for Heritage Canada to distribute for education and community development,
scholarships for students and scholars to study Chinese Canadian history, money
to collect for our national archives materials on the Chinese and other groups
that have been neglected and excluded from a collective sense of our past. We
should have a collective fund, but would there not be greater meaning and moral
purpose to have an array of people like my mother deciding how best to make
amends? There can not be a single definition about how to right a wrong. The
conflicts within Chinese Canadian communities over the past year reflect
disagreements about what is best. Should we not then agree to disagree, and to
see how individual families and individuals make meaning out of reconciliation?
I want to hear the stories of how one family gave money to charity, or how
another decided to create a scholarship, or how someone else decided that their
father or grandfather would be at rest if he knew that the money had gone to an
education fund for a grandchild robbed of an inheritance for which he could not
save. When Canada gave financial redress to Japanese Canadians interned during
the war, one of the wonderful results was that the families each had a chance to
make peace with the past in their own way, and the overall effect of each of
these individual decisions was so much greater than a small set of decisions
that could be made by a government committee or Heritage

We need, then, to acknowledge our
troubled past by giving individual families the choice on how they want to
reconcile with the wrongs committed, and also to create a collective fund to
remake our national history. As a scholar, I believe we need a redefinition of
Canadian history to finally address the central role played by those who were
heretofore erased from our official history. One of the reasons I became a
scholar was because the history I learned in school was so at odds with the
reality I knew from family stories passed down from my grandfather and
great-grandfather. Their Canada was not just a story about railroad workers and
victims of racism. They told stories of Chinese men who had children with First
Nations women, who lived and traded among aboriginal and European migrant
communities in rural areas throughout B.C., who operated cafés  and grocery stores in small towns
throughout the Prairies, who lived and worked together with their neighbors to
create Canada. For four decades on a CPR cruise ship, my grandfather served
those who recently arrived from Britain and Europe who had the privilege to
instantly call themselves Canadian and to imply that he and not they had just
arrived.  But he knew that the life
he had made here, as hard as it was, was a life made in Canada.

Henry Yu is an Associate
Professor of History and Director of the Initiative for Student Teaching and
Research on Chinese Canadians (INSTRCC) at the University of British Columbia.

One thought on ““Head Tax Apology is Only First Step” – Prof. Henry Yu

  1. Anonymous

    I think comparing the Head Tax to First Nation land disputes is inappropriate. Of course the head tax was another horrible racist policy of British Empire building, but immigrants from China were in on the Empire building and stealing land away from local people.
    I am not saying the Head tax was right in any way, I am just saying that comparing the injustice of a colonizer to that of peoples who were being annihilated by these very colonists and others is a cheap rhetorical way to find an association with First Nations. Chinese churches never joined the First Nations solidarity movement that began in the 1970s, and Henry Yu's wiritng reflects that he missed out on this as well.
    People who read this blog probably know that some of those coming from Guangdong province in the 1800s were fleeing from the Bendi Hakka War where over 1,000,000 million people died over land disputes along coastal Guangdong Province.
    So, these land dispute immigrants came to another coastal area (BC) and stole land that was easier to take because they could count on the white guys to protect their property for the most part.
    Yes, the racist policies of Canada's past was terrible, but the slaughter of entire peoples is of no comparison and reflects a new hegemony.


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