Original source: Edmonton
APOLOGY WOULD BE NICE
CHINESE-CANADIANS STILL AWAIT HEAD-TAX PAYOUT
Senior Features Writer
Sunday, June 23, 2002
News Page 35
Caption: 'These racist measures and policies set back many Chinese
families 20 years or more economically ...' Kenda Gee, president
of the Edmonton-based Head Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee, who
displays his grandfather Cheung Gee's head tax certificate.
Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald - or so it's been
attributed - once noted that "without the Chinese labourers, there would
be no railroad."
Well, without the railroad there may have been no Canada; Sir John had
anted the coast-to-coast service as a bargaining chip in the Confederation
Columbia grew impatient that this much ballyhooed dream had yet to materialize
by 1880, the Canadian Pacific Railroad quickly recruited labour directly
from China for the dangerous work ahead.
Roughly 15,000 Chinese - falsely promised riches and a quick return home
- were shipped to Canada.
Thousands died carving out the railway through the Rockies.
The completion of the national railway in 1885 transformed a colony into
a country. The Chinese, however, were suddenly no longer welcome. A hefty
"head tax" was slapped on Chinese immigrants until 1923, when immigration
from China was all but eliminated.
The racist levy was cited by Maclean's as one of the top 25 events that
shaped Canada in the last century.
Today, decades later, Chinese-Canadians hope that wrong will finally be
righted by Ottawa.
"The question is not will Ottawa redress, it's when," said Kenda Gee,
president of the Edmonton-based Head Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee.
"Those involved are committed to a campaign until the day it comes."
Between 1885 and 1923, the federal government collected $23 million ($1.2
billion in current dollars) from 81,000 Chinese immigrants.
The $50 head tax was a significant cost, especially in 1903 when it hit
$500 - worth two years' wages back then. Ottawa didn't tax other immigrants.
Paying off that $500 meant most Chinese immigrants spent entire lives
in indentured servitude. And a lonely life it was; unable to afford to
bring spouses and children over. Other legislative measures included restrictions
on owning property and occupational choice.
And the head tax was taxation without representation. While the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1923 remained in force until it was repealed in 1947,
it wasn't until two years later that Chinese-Canadians finally got to
For two decades Chinese-Canadians have sought redress from Ottawa. In
1994 they were turned down by Sheila Finestone, then federal multiculturalism
minister, who said this country "cannot rewrite history."
A class-action lawsuit was launched. About 400 survivors and 4,000 of
their descendants asked for $1.2 billion in compensation. And a formal
Justice Peter Cumming of Ontario's Superior Court of Justice dismissed
the lawsuit last year. He ruled the Charter of Rights, whose equality
section took effect in 1985, cannot be applied retroactively. That legal
decision is currently being appealed in Toronto. But Cumming did note
that the goal of redress was worthy and suggested a political route.
Thus, the wait continues.
"It's been so many lifetimes that Ottawa has skirted the issue that to
wait another lifetime is really nothing. It's very short. It's a question
of when. And the sooner the better," said Gee, a legal scholar and filmmaker.
"But it would be a very hollow apology if those most directly affected
were not here to see that day.
"In the last few months, in Edmonton alone, we've had three head taxpayers
Gee said the Toronto appeal is likely just the start of several private
and class-action lawsuits. Groups are also considering an international
A few months ago
New Zealand issued a formal apology and entered into negotiations to compensate
victims of its head tax on Chinese immigrants.
Australia, originator of the head tax, has yet to make concessions.
"Canada should follow the lead of New Zealand. What we need today is a
show of contrition which has been absent from the Liberal administration,"
Was your family affected by this at all?
"Both my great-grandfather and grandfather who arrived in the early 1900s
paid the tax. It was a very harsh measure on their lives," said Gee.
"These racist measures and polices set back many Chinese families 20 years
or more economically and separated families and created a very dysfunctional
community. Many of the Chinese who later arrived were separated from their
parents for almost a quarter of a century so when they finally arrived
in Canada they were, in essence, strangers to their own family," said
"The intention of these policies was to destroy the community because
the whole idea is that they didn't want Chinese to settle in Canada. The
policies, by and large, were very effective. They achieved their purpose."
Gee said for Ottawa, it's not just about the money.
"Had Ottawa accepted the settlement proposed in the 1990s, the amount
would have been paid off in two-and-a half years, based on the annual
budget of one of their smallest portfolios, multiculturalism. Canadians
have supported the redress of Caucasian Hong Kong Second World War veterans,
merchant mariners and civil log cutters for injustice covering short periods
and large sums.
"Why not the Chinese? Race still makes us uncomfortable."
Interestingly, in 1988, Ottawa apologized and allocated $300 million to
compensate Japanese-Canadians for interning them and confiscating their
property during the Second World War on the basis of their race.
Since your great-grandfather and grandfather were involved, aren't you
doing this for personal reasons?
"I'm involved with the campaign for personal reasons but also because
I believe strongly that it's the right thing that should be done as a
"Our society has institutions which we expect people to believe in. We
have to restore the faith in those institutions," said Gee.
"When Sheila Copps can pay millions for Canadian flags it means little
to the people who receive the flags unless the icons and institutions
of society have a foundation in the belief they work for them.
"Flags have little meaning without the substance behind them," said Gee.
"The issue is about big government and vulnerable groups, and it's about
government exploiting those who don't have a voice and getting away with
it," said Gee.
"What we hope to accomplish by winning redress is to rebuild the faith
in institutions for those who were adversely affected and to provide deterrents
against bad policies in the future."
Such a small price to pay for those who helped build a nation.
Permission to reprint obtained from (& our sincere thanks to) Graham
Dalziel, Editor-in-Chief; Erik Floren, Senior Features Writer; and, The
Edmonton Sun Library/Archives.
Note: Erik Floren was recently named Feature Writer of the Year
by the Edmonton Sun in July 2002,