Julia Chan

Inclusive Redress

My name is Julia Chan, daughter of Charles and Mary Chan. I am a proud 3rd generation Chinese Canadian. Being proud did not come without a lot of thought and soul searching. Back at the turn of the last century when my grandfather began his journey to Canada, the first obstacle he encountered was the Head Tax. This unjust tax was legislated by the Parliament of the time. It became institutionalized discrimination against one ethnic group only – the Chinese. This tax was enacted to discourage and stop further Chinese immigration into Canada.

Implementing the exorbitant $500 tax became outright discrimination against the Chinese people and is one of Canada’s shameful chapters in our history.

Getting back to my grandfather. From what my mother recollects, she remembers her father talking about working as a ‘houseboy’ in one of the big houses in Shaughnessy.

His main job was to shovel coal into the furnace around the clock in order to keep the house warm.

One of his other duties was to babysit the landlord’s young baby.

My grandfather, Wong Thick Hen passed away many years ago, long before I was born. His legend barely survives him. And so I dedicate this essay to him.

I was born in 1982, and what I know about my family background is passed to me by my mother. She has told me the story of the houseboy in the Vancouver’s Shaughnessy. My mother can barely recall the very sketchy details heard spoken while my grandparents discussed the Head Tax. She heard how onerous it was and how difficult it was to amass the large amount. It took my grandfather many, many years to pay off his debt. She also heard that my grandfather was extremely frugal and remained frugal probably because of this, throughout his life. My mother also remembers her parents telling each other to vote, as the franchise had only recently been restored to the Chinese. Up to their last days, my grandparents continued to exercise their right to vote, vowing never again, to be denied the right to vote. Because grandfather passed away before I was born, I regret not being able to meet him and to hear him personally tell me stories of his struggles.

After hearing these stories, there is one thing that really saddens me. It is the fact that I do not know what my Grandfather looks like. Only a few black and white faded photos exist and the man staring back at me is a stranger.

After awhile, my mother would sigh: “Your grandfather was discriminated against 100 years ago.” Today, in 2012, his descendants are also being discriminated all over again, for a second time.

With surprise, I ask what is she saying? She begins, the Harper government offered an apology in 2006, to make amends and to acknowledge the injustice of the Head Tax.

There were some redress payments, but the public does not know this – only around 785 living Head Tax payers and surviving spouses actually qualified to receive it. But my grandfather died over 50 years ago. He wasn’t alive when Mr. Harper made the apology offering redress to only living Head Tax payers. This is not right. This is not a complete redress. My mother reminds me that Head Tax families are being discriminated all over again, for the second time.

As mentioned, I am a proud Canadian, but at the same, I am also ashamed to be Canadian. Being a 3rd generation Chinese, I find it difficult to understand why only the Chinese people were targeted back then. This Head Tax has been humiliating to my family and me. Such a racist and discriminatory bill should never have been passed.

We should learn from our past. We should be able to review our history, take it apart and correct it. We should be able to make amends. When an employer does something wrong, our judicial system has them apologize, and corrects the behavior, and often pays a fine.

The case of my grandfather paying the Head Tax should be no different. The Head Tax he paid was a grave injustice. He paid the Head Tax to the government, who then profited from the money, and this is wrong. My mother strongly believes the current government should begin to publicly acknowledge our elderly sons and daughters of the Head Tax Payers of long ago in order to begin a healing process and by sincerely working together for an inclusive redress. Notice, I am stating, inclusive. 785 Head Tax payers out of 82,000 payers is not inclusive.

At the same time, I am also proud that Canada has come a long way and is highly respected internationally as being a champion of human rights. But for the elderly Head Tax descendants, the feeling of being left out and ignored is still happening today.

What do I believe should be Government’s next step to make amends? Primarily, the Government should start by acknowledging all Head Tax families. Do not cast these people aside.

As I conclude this essay, I want to thank my grandfather for coming to Canada. For despite the appalling Head Tax, my grandfather was able to survive. Without him setting up roots here, I would not be here today and I would not be able to live the life that I enjoy today. I thank my mother for telling me the stories of my late grandparents. I am very fortunate that my grandfather chose Canada so that my mother could grow up here.

As a last word, I look forward to the Government coming to the table, to do the right thing – bring closure to the remaining Head Tax families and descendants, of which I am one.

For pictures of Julia’s family, please click here: Julia Chan pictures

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