Gary Gee

The Head Tax Issue and Its Impact on Northern Canada

The world can be a small place. The issues that affect the people of the North are similar with those parts of the globe and within Canada where government policy often has a significant impact on a community’s quality of life.

When government policies dictate the sense and understanding of freedom as a concept, people in different parts of the world connect.

I found in 2006 this was the case where the issue of the Chinese Head Tax and the Exclusion Act had resonated with those people I knew in the North. Once a newspaper article was written or they heard about the issue on the radio, the First Nations and Inuit people of the North and activists seemed to quickly understand what had happened to the Chinese community.

The common chord for them was oppression. Native people up North, whether Inuit, Métis or Dene, from the part of the world I lived and worked in for 20 years, have felt the crushing weight of what they consider modern oppression – living under government policies that don’t work for them. It has been their history for decades during a time when the people of the North answered only to Ottawa and could not govern themselves. That period of colonialism and the lessons learned will never be forgotten.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut’s experiment in quasi-self government with aboriginal majorities in the legislature – reflecting the composition of aboriginal people and Inuit living here – has given people a strong sense of independence and freedom in their lives. They are still under the thumb of the federal government, whose largesse they must rely on annually in subsidies. In the same way, each time the federal government brings up the issue of Canadian sovereignty in the North, they know and point to the people there who are the biggest contributors to that – the Northerners who have made the North their permanent home – as they have established that sovereignty by having lived there for generations.

I remember the Chinese Head Tax issue did bring interest to people in the North when I wrote a newspaper column in Yellowknife in the NWT in 1992, and a magazine feature in 1999. When I was interviewed in Iqaluit in 2005 and 2006, I think it garnered interest because native peoples in the North have experienced the human suffering behind the separation of their families in residential school and the sting of racism and discrimination in government policies they have fought against in the past.

I’m glad my presence was able to make our issue of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act an issue of importance to people in far-flung areas of Canada such as Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut on Baffin Island. Geographically, the Head Tax issue truly did become a national social and political issue.

Now that I have returned to southern Canada, gathering research and writing social history, the experience does help me understand better how important artists and writers are in the activist movement. What we express to the public in our work is often the collective words and experiences of those who have lived through the years of isolation brought on by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 and the Chinese Head Tax laws.

The writer is the conduit of the collective experience the community wishes others to know. For the longest time, the Chinese community which I came out of did not want to talk about these issues. As a student with a social work background, I understand this collective angst. The trauma of separation and racism or abuse is hidden deep in the psyche of the victims it affects. I feel that the community has been through a collective trauma for decades and is now emerging from a type of cocoon, giving itself more and more permission to express its collective and individual voice over what happened to our families in the past.

From my own experience, where it seemed our family was cloaked in so much silence at the dinner table growing up, it’s like a big family secret has finally been told. My grandfather, who died in 1972, had lived through the years of Exclusion after paying the Head Tax as a young man. He would probably be mortified that the family secret has been let out. Some may still feel that keeping our silence is more dignified but clearly since the apology by Prime Minister Harper in 2006, I have sensed more and more Loh Wah Kiu descendants wish to have their stories told. It seems to be in line with the dying wishes of their parents and grandparents that it is important to preserve such stories for future generations.

So, it is gratifying to find people are more willing to provide me access to their lives and memories so these stories can be produced for all Canadians to experience. I started writing about Calgary’s Chinatown in journalism school in 1982 after meeting a community social activist in Calgary, bent on preserving and saving Chinatown then. His name was Doug Tims. He took me under his wing, and helped me to understand that despite losing my language early, I was still part of the Chinese-Canadian community. Many others since – Jim Wong-Chu, Sid Tan, Hopman Seto and Hilda Ma have given me the inspiration to continue.  And, most importantly – my mother, who is finally sharing her family history.

As someone who is still learning his history, we need to encourage a new generation to put those stories on film, in print, and on the internet before they are lost.

Maybe, just maybe, all Canadians will discover that the family experiences of Chinese Canadians are as important and unique to this country as the history of any other ethnic group. And, for generations of Chinese Canadians, we will understand that the Loh Wah Kiu were right to come here and their sacrifice and struggle have paid off so all Chinese Canadians can feel equal and accepted in this country.

 

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