Victor Wong

CCNC and the Redress Campaign by Victor Wong

In 1983, a remarkable community-based campaign began when a Chinese head tax payer named Mr. Dak Leon Mark approached his Member of Parliament (Vancouver-East), Margaret Mitchell, for help in getting a refund of the racist $500 head tax that he had paid when he immigrated to Canada.

Ms. Mitchell raised the issue in the House of Commons in February 1984 but the Liberal government refused to redress the matter.  Thousands of head tax payers and their family members approached the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and its member organizations across Canada to register their head tax certificates.

Since 1984, the CCNC has been seeking redress on behalf of the surviving head tax payers and their families who have suffered from decades of discrimination as a result of these racist laws passed by the Canadian government. About 4,000 head tax payers, spouses, and descendants have entrusted CCNC with representing them in seeking an apology and symbolic financial redress.

The redress campaign has gone through several major phases. After the initial registration phase, CCNC made redress a priority in 1987 in preparation for the 1988 election. CCNC worked hard alongside the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and fully supported the historic settlement that the Japanese-Canadian community achieved in 1988.

But soon after, Canada plunged into a recession-like economy for many years, followed by years of deficit-cutting and large Liberal majorities.  Although it became an uphill battle, CCNC continued its redress campaign by holding numerous community meetings, gathering support from other groups and prominent people, increasing the media profile, conducting research, publishing materials, and making presentations at schools.

The first few years of the 1990s saw the focus of the redress campaign shift to B.C. with the emergence of the B.C. Coalition of Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Descendants. This grassroots group signed up over 1,500 new head tax families in support of CCNC and the redress effort.

Before the 1993 federal election, former Prime Minister Mulroney tried to offer individual medallions, a Nation Builders Hall of Record, and other measures to collectively address the redress claims of several ethnocultural communities. This proposal was rejected outright by the Chinese, Italian, and Ukrainian Canadian national groups.

In 1994, the Liberal government led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien refused to provide an apology or redress. But CCNC and its supporters would not give up and continued to raise the issue whenever they could, including a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Another phase of the redress campaign started in 1999 with the planning and implementation of legal action and a class action court case was formally launched in December 2000.  While the court action was unsuccessful (all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2003), the Ontario Superior Court judge who initially granted the early dismissal of the action stated: “Parliament should consider providing redress for Chinese Canadians who paid the Head Tax or were adversely affected by the various Chinese Immigration Acts.”

In 2003, Prime Minister Martin entered the scene and his apparent openness to addressing the issue again sparked renewed hope amongst both long-time redress activists and new supporters.  CCNC launched a public education program–the Last Spike Redress Campaign which featured a symbolic “last spike” of the Canadian Pacific Railway donated by Mr. Pierre Berton. This symbol was used in venues across the country to raise awareness of the early contributions of the Chinese railway workers, our nation’s shameful treatment of the Chinese upon completion of the Railway, and the need for redress while survivors were still alive.

In the summer of 2005, Mr. Gim Wong–an 82-year-old son of a head tax payer and a World War II veteran–started his cross-country Ride for Redress in Victoria on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was featured at news conferences and events as he made his way to Ottawa and ended in Montreal. He left an indelible mark on everyone who met him.

The year 2005 also saw the creation of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families. Other regional groups of head tax families also formed or were revitalized by the growing redress campaign–creating a network that eventually reached from Newfoundland to British Columbia. The local redress-seeking groups worked closely with CCNC to increase the pressure for a respectful response from the government.

However, political expediency won over in November 2005. On the eve of the federal election being called, the federal Liberal government signed the ill-fated agreement-in-principle under its “Acknowledgement, Commemoration and Education” program with a Chinese-Canadian organization that agreed to the preconditions of “no apology” and “no compensation.” The government ignored CCNC and other redress-seeking groups that refused that precondition.

The ensuing negative response from the Chinese-Canadian community was overwhelming. With the solid foundation laid in the 20-plus years of the redress struggle and the momentum built up over the past couple of years, Chinese head tax redress became a surprise election issue. The Chinese language media constantly raised the issue with the candidates. Prime Minister Paul Martin started to backtrack on the “no apology” position, even seeking a legal opinion on the impact of an official apology. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper made an election promise for a Parliamentary apology and appropriate redress.

After the election, Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper made a special point of repeating his commitment to apologize and provide appropriate acknowledgement and redress in his first public news conference. This same commitment was expressed in the April 2006 Throne Speech. Immediately afterwards, Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda and Mr. Jason Kenney, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, began a series of community consultations across the country.

It was a historic occasion for the Chinese-Canadian communities as the government listened for the first time in an official capacity to the compelling and heart-wrenching stories of head tax payers, spouses, sons, and daughters.  There were many emotional moments in the packed meetings as the direct victims of this racist legislation told their stories of financial hardship, racist treatment, and the cruel separation of families for decades.

June 22, 2006 is a day we will all remember.

On this day, in the presence of more than 200 Chinese-Canadian seniors and family members, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons and formally apologized for the head tax and Newfoundland Head Tax and expressed regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act.  A collective sigh of relief was tangible, and the emotions that followed will never be forgotten by those who were there to bear witness to this historic event. For those who were still alive, this was a long-awaited moment; but for many more who had since passed away, the apology came too late.

The Government moved ahead to offer symbolic financial redress to the living head tax payers and surviving spouses.

But we cannot forget the heart-wrenching stories that were shared by all head tax families. CCNC continues to support the head tax families in seeking an inclusive redress to include the elderly surviving children who also experienced this period of legislated racism first-hand.

Honourable redress is restorative and will help to redefine our Chinese-Canadian community as one that is rooted in more than 150 years of contribution to this nation. A complete redress opens the door to reconciliation with and closure for all head tax payers, their families, and the broader Chinese-Canadian community.

Redress will have a transformative impact on all Canadians, the lesson being that the national dream of a strong, united, and inclusive Canada is indeed possible.

Chronology – Chinese Canadian History

458 A.D. According to ancient Chinese archives, Buddhist monks sailed across the Pacific Ocean to a land they called “Fusang”–the Extreme East.

1788 Captain John Meares outfits two vessels in China for the fur trade. He takes 50 Chinese artisans who help him build the first ship to be constructed on the Northwest Canadian coast.

1858 Ah Hong is among the first prospectors to arrive in Victoria from California. These early pioneers call North America “Gum San” (Gold Mountain) for the riches that it promises. Their historical arrival marks the establishment of a continuous Chinese community in Canada.

1867 Confederation–Canada becomes a nation.

1870s Increasing racial resentment in British Columbia. Chinese are removed from the voters’ list and a law is passed to forbid their employment on city public works.

1880 1,500 experienced Chinese railway workers from the United States are hired to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

1881 8,000 Chinese workers are recruited from China for the construction of the Railway.

1884-1885 A time of great suffering as the Chinese are dismissed from the Railway. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association is formed to look after the welfare of Chinese Canadians.

1885 The Chinese Immigration Act is passed, imposing a $50 Head Tax collected upon entry.

1900 The Head Tax is increased to $100.

1903 The Head Tax is increased to $500. This represents about two years’ wages for a Chinese worker.  From 1885 to 1923, $23 million is paid for over 81,000 Head Tax certificates. At the same time, Canada provides financial incentives for European immigrants to settle the west.

1906 Colony of Newfoundland introduces $300 Head Tax.

1914 – 1918 Over 300 Chinese Canadians serve for Canada in World War I.

1923 Canada’s Dominion Day becomes “Humiliation Day” for the Chinese in Canada when the Chinese Immigration (Exclusion) Act is passed. In the next 24 years, fewer than 50 Chinese enter as new immigrants. Despite a “male ghettoization” period, Chinatowns struggle to stabilize themselves, and the few Chinese families lay firm foundations. However, the Chinese Canadian community remains largely a “bachelor society” enduring great loneliness and hardship.

1939 – 1945 Over 500 Chinese serve for Canada in World War II.

1947 The 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed, but many restrictions still exist, including harsh requirements for Chinese Canadians to sponsor their family members. In the same year, the B.C. legislature finally grants voting rights to Chinese Canadians.

1957 Douglas Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament, is elected in Vancouver.

1967 Chinese immigrants finally have equal footing with all other nationalities. The point system in the immigration legislation qualifies Chinese to enter the country on merit.

1979 CTV’s W5 program broadcasts “Campus Giveaway” depicting foreign students, particularly the Chinese, taking away places from Canadian students in universities. In fact, these “foreign” students are mostly Chinese Canadians. A massive protest is launched across the country by Chinese Canadians and joined by other Canadians. An apology is made just before formation of a new national umbrella organization–Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC).

1983 CCNC and Chinese Canadians celebrate 125 years of continuous community in Canada.

1984 Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act redress campaign begins with Vancouver Head Tax payer (Mr. Mak) seeking repayment of head tax with the assistance of his Member of Parliament (Margaret Mitchell). Head Tax payers and their families approach CCNC and its member organizations across Canada to register their Head Tax certificates and seek redress.

More on the CCNC “Our Stories” Head Tax Education project at www.ccnc.ca and on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/groups/347379135324518/

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