Headlines, Human Rights, North America

RIGHTS-CANADA: Chinese Canadians Want Billion-Dollar Refund for Racist Head Tax

Mark Bourrie

OTTAWA, Dec 28 2000 (IPS) - Chinese Canadians who paid a head tax to enter the country are suing the Canadian government for compensation for the discriminatory practice.

The claim, which would total over 1 billion dollars, comes after years of trying to put political pressure on Ottawa for compensation and an apology for the country’s mistreatment of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese were the only immigrants to Canada forced to pay a tax, which was imposed on them as a way of keeping down the number of immigrants from the Asian mainland.

“The head-tax payers cannot wait any longer,” Yuen Hing Tse, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, said at a news conference in Vancouver this week. She added that many are in their 90s.

For nearly 70 years, beginning in the 1880s, Chinese in Canada were not permitted to vote, they could not bring in wives from their homeland, and most of these long-ago immigrants were forced to pay the government a head tax to arrive in Canada. They were also the focus of racist campaigns, led by some of western Canada’s leading politicians and journalists, to drive them out of the Pacific Coast region of Canada.

Three Chinese Canadians, who will represent all families who had to pay a head tax or put up with a blatantly racist exclusion act passed by the government, have filed a statement of claim in an Ontario court to force Ottawa to make amends.

The statement of claim states that the government collected approximately 15 million dollars at the time from Chinese head-tax payers. Today, that is equivalent to more than a billion dollars plus interest. Along with a financial settlement, Chinese-Canadian groups want an admission by the Canadian government that its policies were wrong.

In 1885, the Canadian government imposed a 50-dollar head tax, shortly after Chinese labourers were no longer required to toil on the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway, where 700 Chinese men died. They were paid half the hourly wage of white labourers.

The tax for entering the country was raised to 100 dollars in 1890 and 500 dollars in 1904. Immigrants from other countries paid nothing, and some were given subsidised transportation and free land to move to Canada at a time when Canada was one of the mostly sparsely populated countries on earth.

On Jul. 1, 1923, amid a post-war recession, the Chinese Immigration Act came into force. Chinese became the only people Canada has ever excluded explicitly on the basis of race. For the next 24 years, virtually no Chinese were allowed to immigrate to Canada, and Chinese Canadians observed Jul. 1 – which is Canada’s independence day – as “Humiliation Day”, closing shops and boycotting national celebrations.

The Chinese Canadian National Council registered 2,600 claimants in 1984 and Tse said more surviving head-tax payers, spouses and descendants will join the lawsuit.

Vincent Mah, a resident of Edmonton, is suing because his parents were separated for more than 30 years due to the policies. His father had to pay a 500-dollar head tax and his mother couldn’t enter the country because of the exclusion act.

“I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting” for compensation and an apology, Mah, 67 said. “My mother couldn’t wait any more. I hope that something happens before something happens to me.”

The government rebuffed those lobbying for redress in 1994, but since then, a stream of wealthy immigrants from Hong Kong has given clout to the Chinese-Canadian community. In response to a legal letter from the council a month ago, the government said it needed more time to consider the issue and that it would bring the matter forward to be discussed at a United Nations conference next year. Chinese Canadians say Ottawa is stalling.

“I urge the federal government to come to the table and bring this issue to a conclusion as soon as possible because the head-tax payers are very elderly and the surviving spouses are also very elderly,” said Victor Wong of the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians. “We’d like them to move on this issue.”

Yuen Hing Tse, with the Chinese Canadian National Council, says together the head tax and exclusion policies were “62 years of racism directed solely against the Chinese Canadian community”.

In the years that the Chinese Immigration Act was in force, many Chinese created opportunities for self-employment. Family-run businesses, such as restaurants and laundries, sprang up both in small towns and in the Chinatowns that had emerged in the bigger cities across Canada. These small businesses became havens for Chinese people, both to operate and to work in.

Discriminatory laws encouraged Chinese-only enterprises – in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario, for instance, Chinese employers were prohibited from hiring white females.

Vivienne Poy, sister of Canada’s Governor General and the first Chinese-Canadian appointed to the Senate, devoted her February 1999 inaugural speech to the history of the Chinese in Canada.

“During the Depression, the Chinese in Alberta received relief payments of 1.12 dollars a week, less than half the amount paid to the rest of the population in need,” she said. “Despite that, many prairie farming families owed their lives to the credits given to them by the Chinese store owners in their purchase of daily necessities during those difficult years.”

For years, the president of the Vancouver Chinese Benevolent Association made an annual trek to Ottawa to petition for the law to be amended.

“What we ask is not an open door to all Chinese who wish to come,” Foon Sien told the authorities. “Our appeal is that the Chinese Canadian may have his family with him – a complete family, not one part in Canada and the other part in Hong Kong or China.”

With no new immigrants allowed in and some returning to China, the Chinese population of Canada declined from 46,500 in 1931 to 32,500 in 1951.

Few of the men squeezed out of tumultuous, overcrowded southeast China in the 19th century had any intention of sinking roots abroad. Called coolies – from kuli, “bitter strength” – some left China willingly, while others were kidnapped by press-gangs.

Chinese labourers were at the centre of a little-known chapter of Canadian First World War history. For a year, beginning in April 1917, close to 80,000 men were shipped from China to British Columbia, then transported across the country by rail and dispatched from east-coast ports to the trenches of France. One of the governments ruling China at the time had joined the war on the side of the Western allies and offered more labourers to the war effort.

After the armistice, the Chinese labour battalions were repatriated along the same route. In both directions, they were transported in sealed cars lest they try to jump train and avoid the 500-dollar head tax levied at the time against Chinese immigrants.

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