James Marr

Head Taxpayer James Marr relishes one last train ride

“He didn’t have a lot to say, but he actually enjoyed the ride and he enjoyed going into the dining room, and we were being treated like royalty. That was my Dad’s last train ride.” – Daughter Lily Welsh

James Marr as boy standing (right) next to his mother and his sister in China. Photo: The Marr family album

EDMONTON – It would be his last train ride. At 94, Edmontonian James Marr still loved to ride the train.

In his early years, the Canadian Pacific Railway would take him from town to town across Alberta and Saskatchewan where he settled in Unity with his family for more than 25 years. Riding the train – now VIA Rail – was still an adventure in June 2006. The “Redress Express” train ride from Vancouver to Ottawa, though, was different than any other.

Mr. Marr and other elders aboard from the Chinese Canadian community were among the living Head Tax payers and surviving spouses invited to Ottawa to witness a historic event. Organized by the Ontario Coalition of Head Tax Families and various Head Tax redress groups, these seniors brought with them the “Last Spike,” a ceremonial railway spike which had been donated to the Chinese Canadian National Council by the late Pierre Berton and presented to the Prime Minister. The “Last Spike” symbolized the contributions of Chinese Canadians to nation building in general and to the building of the CPR specifically.

The “Redress Express” train ride assembled some 200 Chinese Canadians from across Canada at the House of Commons for the Parliamentary Apology and redress announcement on June 22, 2006.

As he and his family rode first class that day, Mr. Marr seemed pleased. “I was with him and my two other sisters were there as well. He didn’t have a lot to say, but he actually enjoyed the ride and he enjoyed going into the dining room, and we were being treated like royalty,” recalled daughter Lily, fondly. “But that was my Dad’s last train ride.”

“I used to go to my uncle’s place in Edmonton from Unity – a four hour ride. It was always fun on the train. It brings back many memories,” she recalled.

A pioneer of the Chinese-Canadian community, Mr. Marr was one of the last few surviving community members who had paid the $500 Head Tax to enter Canada. The Canadian government enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 effectively prohibiting further Chinese immigration. It would be a 29-year wait before Mr. Marr could reunite with his family in Canada.

The Canadian government offered an ex-gratia payment of $20,000 as symbolic redress to give meaning to the Parliamentary Apology. But only living Head Tax payers and surviving spouses were eligible. Meanwhile, some 3,000 Head Tax families whose first generation members had passed away as the issued dragged on for 22 years would not be eligible for direct redress.

There were still about 2,000 elders alive in 1984 when the Chinese-Canadian community began lobbying the federal government to find a just and honourable resolution to the redress issue. The Chinese Exclusion Act served to separate families for many years – decades for some, before it was repealed in 1947. Some Chinese men died in Canada without ever reuniting with their families and the Chinese community became stunted over these years as the population fell.

In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made reference to the misguided and racist policies which had hurt and damaged many families: “Mr. Speaker, I rise today to formally turn the page on an unfortunate period in Canada’s past. One during which a group of people – who only sought to build a better life – was repeatedly and deliberately singled out for unjust treatment.”

“I speak, of course, of the Head Tax that was imposed on Chinese immigrants to this country, as well as other restrictive measures that followed. The Canada we know today would not exist were it not for efforts of the Chinese labourers who began to arrive in the mid-nineteenth century.”

“We also recognize that our failure to truly acknowledge these historical injustices has led many in the community from seeing themselves as fully Canadian. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of all Canadians and the Government of Canada, we offer a full apology to Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax and express our deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Gar nar dai doe heem (Canada apologizes).”

James Marr or Mah Jin Yuet arrived in Canada in 1923 at age thirteen to join his father. His grandfather had worked on the CPR. Young James worked in restaurants with his father. They would follow the route of the railroad on their journeys, wending a path from town to town eastward from British Columbia to the Prairies. His grandfather and father would work as cooks, while James learned to run the restaurants.

“In those days people didn’t talk about their own lives, so nobody seems to know today what happened then, but we did ask my father a few things before he died,” says Lily. A lot of economic problems in China forced many to come over to a new country they called Gum San and try to find a life. “They came over here to get ahead,” she said.

As a young man, Mr. Marr would start cafés in Chipman, Alberta, and Davidson, Saskatchewan. At each of those places, he didn’t stay long. “He told me it depended on how the businesses were doing,” says Lily. “In those days, business was so slow they put out a coffee cup for people to pay. It took all day and it still wasn’t full of cash. That’s how bad it was at one time – probably around the 1930s, the time of the Depression,” she said.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into effect by 1923, James Marr was still able to get back to China a number of times, said Lily Marr. “I know he went back to China when he was 17 or 18 with a group of Chinese men. They went back there for one reason – to look for wives.”

Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese were allowed to exit Canada for a two-year period to visit their families but they could not bring them back to Canada. “I know there was a time when he had to rush to get back or they were going to stop him and he wouldn’t be able to get back to Canada if he goes past the two-year mark.”

James Marr would marry Wong Sen Hull, Lily’s mother, in China. It was 1929, six years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. A daughter was born the next year but by that time, he had returned to Canada.

By the 1930s, the Depression had hit Canada particularly hard on the Prairies. Overseas, the Sino-Japanese War had begun and the Japanese Imperial Army quickly overran northern China.

“He kept in contact with my Mom, but I remember my Dad saying something about sending money back to China and it was impossible at the time because they stopped everybody, all the mail from going back to China. They call it Bong Sui Li or Bong Jen. It was during the Japanese invasion. At that time, people couldn’t go in and couldn’t go out of the country,” said Lily.

Her mother has told Lily about how the family had suffered in China in their village of Shang Lon, Bak Sai, when they were unable to correspond with her father. “I remember my Mom saying she would take salted fish, carrying it on her back for several hours into another town to sell, just so that she could earn a little bit of money to bring home to the children at home.”

“It was a difficult life. I remember my sister was saying she couldn’t sleep at nighttime. My Mom thought she was hungry. Mom said she would get up in the middle of the night and cook a little meal so my sister could have a little food in her stomach. Then she would fall asleep.”

Lily and her two sisters and two brothers – both of whom were born in Canada – had no knowledge of their father or grandfather’s past, including how the Chinese Exclusion Act had separated their parents. “We never heard of our dad and grand-dad talking about those kinds of things. Nobody really talked about their lives.”

James Marr’s eldest daughter married and she had to stay in China as the post-1947 policy only allowed unmarried children under 18 years of age to immigrate. In 1967, the Canadian government announced a new immigration system based on a points system and James was finally able to help her and her family to immigrate.

Although the Marr family would come to Canada legally, there were others like Lily’s uncle who told her that he and his father had no choice but to purchase false papers if they were to reunite their family in Canada. “His Dad was not his real Dad but he was still supposed to address him as his father. It was a tough time,” Lily said. Eventually, about 12,000 Chinese would be granted an amnesty so that they could regularize their status.

Mr. Marr worked in towns like Islay, Saskatchewan before finally settling down in Unity around the early 1950s where he and three partners would run the Paris Café and the Unity Cafe. At that time, Unity was just becoming a boom town. In 1946, salt deposits had been discovered in the area and a plant was started. By 1954 the richest potash discovery in the world would be found in the Patience Lake and Unity areas. Potash is used as a fertilizer and in a number of manufacturing processes.

A small town in the ’50s, Unity had a number of Chinese families. Jeannie, one of James Marr’s three daughters, says she never felt any real discrimination in the town. She joined sports teams and made some good friends. “We were somewhat integrated but we were still quiet, so we didn’t mingle a lot. We were just quiet kind of people in nature,” said Lily, as her sisters would go to church and Sunday school, joined the Brownies, and volunteered at hospitals as candy-stripers. Meanwhile, their brothers would also participate in sports and hang around at a local garage learning how to fix cars.

“We didn’t feel there was much prejudice. It’s just that because you’re different from everybody else, it’s whether you feel fully accepted,” recalls Lily.

All the family’s children began working at the Paris Café when they were 14. Because it was owned by a group of partners, they were treated like any other waitresses, receiving about 75 cents an hour back then. James Marr was the manager, while his partners worked the kitchen as cooks.

“I thought that wage was really good in 1964,” observed Lily. Although her father wanted her to help run the café, Lily – who loved working with children – went on to become a teacher. “I don’t remember many Chinese wanting to do that back then,” she recalled.

The café had its regular clientele like the Lions Club which held meetings there twice a month. But after 6 p.m., business would die down as people would go home to their families. Farmer’s days on Saturday brought out many families and hunters from the United States, seeking geese and ducks every summer and fall, and kept the restaurant going.

By the mid-1950s to 1960, a number of Chinese families would migrate from Unity and Edmonton to start grocery stores. “They were all named “Mah.” One person would make a start in Edmonton and everyone followed,” she noted. James Marr did not, and would continue to run the Paris Café until 1976 when he sold it. He and his family later moved to Edmonton where he retired.

He would venture back to Unity to visit accompanied by his daughters, and the town folk welcomed him back. “When some people heard my Dad was in town, they rushed out to say goodbye before he left,” said Jeannie.

“Everyone had good words to say about him. My father was well respected. He was a good man, and he was a generous person,” said Lily. Her Dad was also involved in the Chinese community, travelling to Edmonton to help the Chinese Freemasons and help them with translation and accounting.

At the 100th anniversary celebrations in 2009 in the Town of Unity, Jeannie recalls many people remembering her father and the family. This was despite an absence of 33 years. “They always remembered us because we had the best Chinese restaurant.”

A number of mini-strokes would cripple Mr. Marr in the new millennium and he passed away peacefully on Nov. 7, 2007. But prior to his death, daughter Lily says she talked to her father about the Head Tax, paid through village donations, to get him into Canada. He would re-pay the $500 over many years of hard work.

“He said if the Head Tax was paid back, he would be satisfied with that resolution. If nothing happened as usual, he would say: what could you do about it?” said Lily. Although he was in a wheelchair by the time he received his $20,000 ex-gratia payment, he acknowledged to his daughters that it was a good decision.

“I had heard him say something about other families that in order to make it possible for him to come over to Canada, they had to cash in their gold jewelry just so that they could have the money to buy a ticket to come,” noted Lily.

Although her father struggled like others in the Chinese-Canadian community during various periods of his life, his daughters believe his optimism helped him keep going.

“After he stopped working, he had a really good life,” said Lily. “He always went back to Chinatown. Every day he went at the same time. It was like a clock inside him. Catch the bus every afternoon. He came home at the same time, whether it was rain or shine. He did the same thing seven days a week.”

After moving his family to Saskatchewan in 1951, James Marr finally made it back to his old village in China some 35 years later. “He wanted to go back to visit his brother and sister and brother-in-law,” said Lily.

Decades had passed. James Marr was one of the fortunate ones, in a way. Many of the Loh Wah Kiu of his generation never saw their families again in China, unable to afford to go home or to bring them to “Gum San.” James Marr succeeded. Starting at the young age of 13, he grew up in a hostile country, but found a way to settle here for 82 years. At his death, he was survived by his five children, 12 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, his sister, his sister-in-law, as well as many nieces and nephews.

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