Polygamy and Head Tax: what's the point? Only 0.5% of head tax certificates are being recognized anyways!
(revised Feb 13, 11:30pm)
The Vancouver Sun, today on Monday February 12th, published an alarmist story Polygamy warning issued on head tax: Federal government told redress program might raise 'huge' legal issues
about a non-issue regarding the possibility of multiple claimants as
surviving spouses of head tax payers. It was a front page
headline on page A1.
This is a 'huge' non-story because
99.95% of the 81,000 head tax payers from 1885 to 1923 are already
dead. Only 44 head tax survivors applied for the $20,000
ex-gratia payment. Only 337 widowed spouses have applied for the
ex-gratia payment. The government is still REFUSING to recognize
any head tax certificates where both payer and spouses are predeceased,
even if there are surviving sons or daughters. Less than 1% of
the 81,000 head tax payments are being recognized – only half a percent – 0.5%!
really cares if one dead head tax payer had 2 or 3 wives? The
chances of more than one being still alive is less than any of the
original head tax certificates being honoured. We should be
thankful that anybody is still alive at this late point. And the
government will still only honour one payment per certificate, so
what's the point of the article – other than being alarmist?
Blame the head tax for imposing the high costs that kept families
apart, or for making it a financial hardship to bring a wife to
Canada. Blame the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1923 to 1947 for
driving married men to start up a new family in Canada, or remain a
bachelor for the rest of their life because of the scarcity of Chinese
Who really cares if Chinese men had 2 or 3 wives, the Canadian
government at the time believed that Chinese would not make good
citizens, would not contribute to the development of Canadian society,
would not stay to live in Canada… and consequently the Canadian
government would not grant naturalization or full citizenship rights
nor even voting privileges to Canadians born in Canada of Chinese
I personally know of stories where families became separated because of
the head tax and Exclusion Act, then believed each other dead or
missing because of loss of communication because of both civil war in
China, and WW2. The husbands re-married in Canada, resulting in a
second wife. This is NOT polygamy.
When families were later rediscovered and/or reunited after the war –
the existence of another family caused great anguish to the wives and
families. It even drove some wives to suicide – both in China and
The real story is that:
1) The government has trouble reconciling justice without
admitting it was previously wrong, and continuing to deny true justice
for Chinese head tax payers, spouses and descendants – short of giving
a refund for a wrongful and a racially discriminating tax.
The government didn't know how to recognize a “full apology,” give
symbolic compensation to surviving head tax payers and spouses, without
being seen as unfair to descendants whose head tax paying parents and
grandparents are pre-deceased.
3) The government continues NOT to consult and negotiate with
actual head tax descendants such as they did with actual
Japanese-Canadian internment survivors for the historic 1988 Japanese
4) The government monitors the Chinese language media in an
effort to appeal to the Chinese language immigrant vote, to be seen as
“multicultural.” They see the immigrant Chinese language voting group
as more important than English speaking, born in Canada, head tax
Activist groups such as the Chinese Canadian National Council
and the BC Coalition of Head Tax Payers and Familes, said “One payment
for each certificate.” Event though 99.95% of the original head
tax payers are already dead, both the present and past governments do
not want to to incur a potentially expensive redress to descendants.
But head tax activists are only asking for symbolic but fair
redress. How can you give a payment to some people but say no to
others by saying “Sorry, your parents and grandparents are already
dead. Too bad they couldn't survive long enough after unfair and
racist laws made extreme hardships for them.”
grandfather had a total of 6 wives, of whom my paternal grandmother is
wife #5. He came to Canada at age 16, around 1882. He would
have married his wives during his visits back in China, or in
absentia. In those days, if you were wealthy you could afford
multiple wives or concubines – especially if wives #1, #2, #3, and #4 didn't
give you any children. Because my grandfather was living in Canada,
and his wives were in China, he wouldn't have been properly able to
look after them, while he tried to raise money to pay the head tax to
bring them to Canada. We don't know what happened to wives #1,
#2, #3 or #4. But grandfather did bring wives #5 and #6 to
Canada. And he would have had to pay the head tax for each of his
wives, and the money would have gone into the Canadian governmnent's
bank account because there was no income tax in those days.
was told that my grandmother, wife #5, was the only one to have her
marriage recognized in Canada. She was the one that lived with
grandfather through his last years in their tiny appartment in
Strathcona, on the edge of Chinatown. He died in 1964, and she
died in 1968.
If grandfather had survived to see head
tax redress in 2006, he would have been 140 years old. Grandma
died when she was 73, if she was still alive in 2006 she would have
been 111. My point is that head tax redress came too late for the
head tax payers and their spouses. Every certificate should be
honoured. If the original payer or spouse is predeceased, the
symbolic ex-gratia payment should be given to their descendants.
Chinese protested when the first head tax of $50 was levied in
1895, and they protested when it was raised to $500, and again they
protested when the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was created in 1923.
After WW2, returning Chinese Canadians who fought for Canada, were able
to gain the voting franchise for Canadians born of Chinese ancestry in
1947. As well, the “Chinese Immigration Act” known as the
“Chinese Exclusion Act” was repealed.
1984, the first head tax redress campaign was launched when an elderly
man went to his MP, Margaret Mitchell, to ask for help in reclaiming
the head tax money. In 1988, the Mulroney Conservative government
apologized and gave redress for the internment of Japanese-Canadians
and the confiscation of their property. However, despite
discussions about Chinese head tax redress, subsequent Canadian
governments refused to bring a closure to 62 years of legislated racism.
Finally on June 22, 2006, Conservative Prime Minister Harper offered an apology for Chinese Head Tax,
and expressed his “deepest sorrow” (but no apology) for the Chinese
Exclusion Act, while promising to give symbolic individual payments of
$20,000 to living Chinese Head Tax payers and living spouses of
Meanwhile, a possible 381 head tax
certificates are recognized while an estimated 80,600 are
ignored? This is not fair recognition!
And now… a
non-story about possible multiple surviving wives making the same
claims on a possible head tax certificate gets a front page story in
the Vancouver Sun?
Contrast this non-news item with the very real news of Head Tax Payer Charlie Quan receiving the first head tax – The Vancouver Sun buried the picture and story on page B8, and ran a self-congratulatory front page on their list of 100 Influential Chinese Canadians in BC
which was criticized by prominent community leaders for whom the list
left out, while including people of Chinese ancestry who most likely
weren't Canadian citizens if they've only been in Canada for 1
year. Isn't the definition of a Chinese-Canadian somebody who is
actually born in Canada? or a Canadian citizen of Chinese ancestry?
Anyways… this latest non-story.
Government warned of legal problems from head tax
The Vancouver Sun, 12 Feb 2007
Byline: Peter O'Neil
— The Conservative government, which last year announced a Chinese
head tax redress program, had earlier received internal warnings that
the initiative might raise “huge” legal problems and possibly risk
offending community members over the issue of polygamy, The Vancouver
Sun has learned.
“On the issue of Chinese spouses, we risk offending
the community by 'exposing' the whole polygamy question,” stated an
unsigned Canadian Heritage briefing note prepared in early 2006. It was
obtained through the Access to Information Act by researcher Ken Rubin.
fact, this will be a failure in the eyes of the community and will be
seen as a perpetuation of a 'wrong today' unless we can develop an
approach which treats all forms of spouses in a dignified and gracious
manner and which recognizes their experience without unduly exposing
the whole issue of polygamous unions or 'non-legal' marriages.”
briefing note added: “Of course, this does not address the bigger
question of Charter 'retroactivity' which, as you know, we believe is a
The warning referred to concerns that the government
could expose taxpayers to enormous costs if it provides retroactive
compensation for rights violations before the Charter of Rights'
equality provision came into force in 1985.
document, stamped “secret” and obtained by The Sun Friday, also warned
the former Liberal cabinet on June 21, 2005, that redress for
Chinese-Canadians would “increase substantially” the Canadian
government's exposure to legal action from numerous ethnic minority
groups seeking compensation for racial injustices.
Stephen Harper apologized last June to Chinese-Canadians and promised
$20,000 payments to surviving head tax payers or the spouses of
deceased head tax payers to recognize an historical injustice.
after welcoming some 15,000 Chinese labourers to help build the
Canadian Pacific Railway, imposed a $50 tax on Chinese immigrants
starting in 1885. The tax gradually rose to $500 before legislation in
1923 banned Chinese until that law was repealed in 1947.
Heritage spokesman Len Westerberg said Friday that the legal issue was
addressed by making clear the $20,000 payments to head tax payers and
widows announced last June were “ex gratia” and voluntary.
the same terminology used by the federal government in 1988 when it
provided a $422-million redress program for Japanese-Canadians and
their immediate descendants interned during the Second World War.
asked about the polygamy issue raised in the documents, noted that the
payments to spouses could only go to women in “exclusive conjugal”
The newly released documents state that many
marriages performed in China until the 1940s “were either potentially
or actually polygamous.” Most head tax payers in Canada would have
married in China, either before leaving for Canada or during a trip to
their home country, it said.
Neither Victor Wong, executive-director
of the Chinese Canadian National Council, nor former Liberal
multiculturalism minister Raymond Chan said they were aware of serious
government concerns over the possibility that more than one spouse
might claim to be the widow of the same head tax payer.
Minister Jason Kenney denounced the former government on May 5, 2006,
for relying on legal concerns as an “excuse” for not apologizing and
Kenney, who was then Harper's parliamentary secretary, relied on an Aug. 5, 2004 briefing note to Chan.
note concluded that Chinese-Canadians and other aggrieved groups would
have difficulty making a successful Charter of Rights challenge for the
same treatment that Japanese-Canadians got in 1988. The government has
always maintained that the Japanese-Canadian experience was unique.
the 2005 cabinet document obtained by The Sun indicates a redress
package for Chinese-Canadians would “increase substantially … the
risk of litigation by a broader field of communities seeking similar
One internal document said Canadians of Ukrainian,
Italian, Jewish, Indo-Canadian, German, Polish, Czech, Slovak,
Croatian, Bulgarian, Austrian, Turkish and Romanian descent could make
claims with respect to alleged mistreatment during the First and Second
World Wars. So could members of the Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor
“If the government were to accept any or all of the new
redress proposals [from Chinese-Canadians and other groups], its
ability to defend the Japanese redress payments as unique and
unparalleled, and hence not subject to section 15 of the Charter, would
be undermined,” states the 2005 cabinet briefing note.
internal document cited a current case before the Supreme Court of
Canada, in which five gay plaintiffs are asking for survivor pension
benefits dating back to when the Charter of Rights' equality provision
took effect in 1985.
Canadian recognition of historical injustices
pre-dating the Charter of Rights risks “adversely influencing” the
Supreme Court decision in the gay pension case, the Canadian Heritage
documents on the head tax issue warned.
It added that a head tax
redress package dating back to matters decades before the Charter took
effect “creates a further risk that a court may treat this as a legal
precedent and require the government to do so in all federal laws that
The document also warns about possible court challenges that the government's redress package is unfair.
the payments are made to all spouses, then other family members may
challenge these payments on the basis that they discriminate on the
ground of family status under the Charter,” it warns.
the head tax payer may have had children who were alive during that era
and so were more directly affected by the hardships associated with the
tax than a more recent spouse who may have no direct connection to the
Kenney said Sunday the government stands by its decision.
bottom line is that lawyers can make an argument for or against any
course of action. It's up to political leaders to apply common sense,
and make principled decisions,” Kenney said in an e-mail to The Sun.
“That's what Stephen Harper did in making the apology for the Chinese head tax.”
said 44 applications from head tax payers have been filed, and in 37 of
those cases $20,000 cheques have already been mailed out.
Another 337 applicants from widowed spouses have been filed, he said, but those claims still haven't been processed.
CCNC's Wong said his group agrees with the warnings in briefing notes
that the government is being unfair to some head tax victims.
said his group wants the government to expand the program, at a cost of
at least $60 million, by giving $20,000 cheques to each of the 3,000
families of descendants of head tax payers.
Wong, who said Harper
has done more to advance the issue than any of his last six
predecessors, said his group has no plans to spoil current goodwill by
heading to the courts.
“There probably will not be any legal action. We'll just keep pressing the issue,” Wong said.
Monahan, dean of the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in
Toronto, said it's not clear if other groups will be able to use the
Chinese head tax package in court.
“I'm inclined to think that ex-gratia payments do not give rise to a legal obligation in other cases,” he said.
the more such payments are made, I think the more difficult it is to
resist claims of equal treatment. So I think there is some risk
associated with that.”
– – –
COUNTING THE COST
used “actuarial estimates and assumptions” to calculate the number of
living head-tax payers and their descendants existing in 2006. The
multiple wives question was included, as shown below.
110 head-tax payers
229 Spouses of the era (1 wife)
458 Spouses of era (2 wives)
293 Spouses of era and present (1 wife)
586 Spouses of era and present (2 wives)
2,045 Descendants (if 1 wife/1 child)
6,135 Descendants of era
12,270 Descendants (assuming 2 wives/3 children each)
Ran with fact box “Counting the cost”, which has been appended to the end of the story.
Colour Photo: Certificate