Gary Yee

Personal Reflections From the Redress Express by Gary Yee

Wednesday, June 21, 2006, 6:14 p.m.

(edited from e-mail to my family on the night before the redress apology)

I am here in Ottawa. What a great train ride! After starting from Vancouver and picking up Head Tax families along the way, the train arrived in Toronto yesterday night. This morning, at Union Station, there were hordes of media and a crowd of Head Tax families and supporters. This train ride was only my third time on a train since coming to Canada, although I forget that first ride over 40 years ago, in October 1964, from Vancouver to Toronto, as a four-year-old boy immigrating to this country along with my big family.

This highly symbolic journey was arranged with VIA Rail by Susan Eng (co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Families), along with many other volunteer organizers. The Redress Express had two full cars. I sat beside a feisty and fun widow of a Head Tax payer who had lived in Sioux Lookout for many years until her husband passed away. She talked a lot and was very entertaining, and she was very independent. There were lots of media and TV cameras and reporters, and I spoke to a few of them, but I made it clear that it was for “background” only – I was not to be quoted, due to my government job.

The time flew by quickly. We arrived in Ottawa to be welcomed by a big delegation with a huge banner. M.P. Olivia Chow and Parliamentary Secretary Jason Kenney were there, with a lot of media of course. There were two buses to take us to our hotels.

It’s time to go for dinner now. I’m anxious about tomorrow – so many rumours . . . really, we should know what the offer is before going to all this trouble to be here – but it will be historic nonetheless.

Friday, June 23, 2006, 3:18 a.m.

(edited from e-mail to my family after returning home from Ottawa)

OK, I know it’s late, but I knew when I got home after midnight tonight that I would not be able to wind down and sleep. I just spent an hour writing some notes and thoughts of the incredible experience I was privileged to have gone through in the last two days.

After arrival in Ottawa, I was involved in many meetings and phone calls on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as we dealt with rumours, scenarios, strategies, possible responses, key messages, etc.

After brunch/lunch on Thursday, all of us waited for our turn to get onto the buses that would take us from the hotel to Parliament Hill. Once we arrived there, the wait to get into the public gallery at the House of Commons was very long and a little stressful because all the galleries were full. We finally got in just before 3:00 p.m. at one end of the Chamber. It was exciting; so much anticipation. I was lucky enough to be asked to join a few others in the Senators’ Gallery, and I had a seat on the first row of the gallery, almost right across from Prime Minister Harper.

The P.M.’s apology was fulsome, moving, and well done. He closed off with some words in Cantonese – Ca-Na-Dah Doe Heep (Canada apologizes). Then everyone stood up – the M.P.s and the public – and there was sustained applause. The other party leaders spoke, and NDP Leader Jack Layton also had a very moving speech, that led to long applause and people in the gallery standing. It was a very good feeling, even though the P.M.’s words confirmed our fears that the monetary part of the redress for individuals would be limited to the few living Head Tax payers and surviving spouses.

Later, in the Railway Committee Room in the House of Commons, there was the official ceremony. The P.M. attended and spoke. I was in the third row, and took some photos as he went to shake hands with a few people in the first row. The room was packed – 150 people and a huge bank of cameras at the back. The overflow rooms with huge monitors were across the hall.

Although there was a special feeling in the Chamber when the P.M. made the apology, it felt disappointing when more details were stated at the follow-up ceremony. It was not even a symbolic sum of $23 million returned to the Head Tax families or Chinese Canadian community. Also, the Government tried to use the Chinese-Canadian redress to address and settle the other ethnic communities’ claims. I know I was supposed to feel happy perhaps, but I think I had mixed feelings. I realize now that my feeling at the time was more like numbness. I am not overjoyed but nor am I bitter. There is some sense of relief, but only partially; and there is some sense of accomplishment and success, but only partially; and there is some sense of closure, but only partially. But I will let things sink in for a day or two.

CCNC Ottawa Chapter held a banquet after the ceremony. The Chinese restaurant was full – 250 people. The emcees read out the names of the Head Tax payers and the spouses who were present, as well as others, such as M.P.s Jack Layton and Olivia Chow and three other M.P.s. I was very touched when community activist Avvy Go paid tribute to me and said that redress would not have happened without my work that started 20 years ago.

I left near the end of the banquet to catch my 11 p.m. flight back home, so that I could return to work on Friday. Jack Layton and Olivia Chow happened to be flying home at the same time since the House was recessed for the summer. It was fun to travel back to Toronto with them, and to see them interact like a couple who were so comfortable and loving with each other. And on the fairly empty plane, I had a chance to talk with Jack. I gave him my Last Spike redress pin.

I will close off for now, by re-stating the four points I suggested to the CCNC as the key messages to respond to this historic day and the redress offer:

1.  This is a wonderful day for the Head Tax payers and spouses, and a historic day for the Chinese-Canadian community.

2.  At the same time, it is tragic that thousands of payers and spouses have passed away in the 24 years of CCNC fighting this redress campaign, and we are grateful to this Prime Minister for moving urgently to provide the apology and start the reconciliation process.

3.  The thousands of sons and daughters of Head Tax payers were also directly affected by the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, and we look forward to working with this Government to engage in a respectful process to provide appropriate redress to them as well.

4.  But today is a day for celebrating this historic moment for the Chinese-Canadian community. The apology and redress will redefine how our community is seen in this country – not just as a community of new immigrants, but as a community with a long history of contribution to this nation, including the building of the national railway.

Friday, June 23, 2006, 8:59 a.m.

(edited from e-mail in response to my brother’s e-mail to thank me for my “tireless work and representing us with dignity”)

Thanks for that. I thought I would cry a few times in the last two days – when I heard our Montreal activist’s mother (a Head Tax payer’s widow) had a stroke just two days ago; when I pulled out a copy of my Grandfather’s Head Tax certificate that I carried in my pocket to Ottawa; when the Prime Minister made his speech; when I joined in the singing of the national anthem at the ceremony afterwards; when I was acknowledged so publicly at the banquet, etc. – all the really emotional moments and many more in these past two days, but there was just a tearing-up now and then, and maybe there was that bit of numbness. But reading your e-mail this morning before I go back to work – that is when I started to sob a few times. Yes, in the end, it’s the power and passion of family that conquers all – because it is family where I feel I belong, and where I feel so totally accepted – and this was, or is, what redress is all about, and what the immigrant experience is all about – the quest for belonging, the quest for a place to call home, the quest to be accepted. Yesterday was a huge step towards that, not quite the full closure and acceptance that I was seeking or hoping for, but a huge step nonetheless.

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