Nicole Chan

“Those who cannot remember the past”

“… are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

What started off as a way to give future generations a better life, ended up as a discriminatory entrance to a free country. Although today Canada has a reputation for being a multicultural and diverse nation, it hasn’t always been welcoming towards outsiders. In 1885, Canada had begun to implement the first version of the Chinese Head Tax at $50. By 1903 the Chinese had to pay $500 to enter Canada. Because of the high demand for cheap labour, the Chinese had been recruited to Canada to work on the dangerous, history changing project- the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The Chinese who came to Canada were attracted by the dreams and promises of “Gold Mountain” where one could get rich quickly. People who immigrated over to Canada were mostly husbands in search of a better life for their family and future generations.

Humiliation and discrimination are some words used to describe the period from 1858 to 1947. Even after 1947, most of Canada did not accept the Chinese, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Chinese people were initially attracted to Canada because of the gold rush. Canada and San Francisco had a reputation for being rich in gold, and were often referred to as Gold Mountain. In addition, many of the Chinese people wanted to escape the hardships that they were facing in their homelands such as war and starvation. In 1881 when Canada began to build the CPR, they knew that it would be a dangerous and time-sensitive task to complete. Bringing the Chinese into Canada to help accomplish the task of finishing the railroad appeared to be a great way to save money, and to get the project done on time. The Chinese were known for their hard work, they took many of the jobs that the Caucasian men refused to do. About four Chinese died for each mile of railway constructed. So many Chinese died while trying to provide a better life for their families back home. While working on the railway, the Chinese even had difficulties sending money back to their families back home. They were only paid 75 cents to $1.25 a day compared to the wages for white workers of $2.50 a day. The Chinese were constantly discriminated against while they were working on the railway, yet they continued to work for better opportunities.

Once the railway was finished, the Canadian government no longer wanted the continued immigration of the Chinese to Canada. Therefore, in 1885, the Canadian Government passed its first Chinese Immigration Act. This was the only restrictive immigrations Act in Canada that was directed at a certain ethnicity. Originally the legislation put in place a fifty dollar Head Tax to restrict the number of Chinese from entering Canada. However, there were still many Chinese who wanted to immigrate to Canada. The fifty dollar head tax was then raised to one hundred dollars in 1900. Yet, because Chinese people were determined to get to Canada, immigration only slowed down for a short period of time. So in 1903, the Canadian Government decided to raise the Head Tax to five hundred dollars, a sum worth about two years of work for a white worker. In addition to all of this money paid to the government, the Chinese were not recognized as British subjects in Canada. In total, the Canadian government collected $23 million from the Chinese Head Tax. The Chinese Exclusion Act was then passed in 1923, as the Canadian government was not seeing a significant halt in Chinese immigration. This prevented all but a handful of Chinese from entering and immigrating to Canada. Only about fifty Chinese were allowed to enter Canada between 1923 and 1947. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese who were already here in Canada were separated from their families and loved ones in China for an extended period of time.

Most of the people who had emigrated from China were men. These men were usually the main breadwinners of their families, which left their wives, to fend for the rest of the family. Many families back home suffered financial troubles and diseases related to malnutrition. Although the Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947 and many families were finally reunited, some remained separated forever. All the while, Chinese were not fully respected. They were still subject to immigration quotas when reuniting their families and they faced discrimination in everyday situations. The only jobs that were available to them were the ones that the Caucasian people did not want, and they were living in isolated Chinatowns because they were not accepted in the broader society.

Over a century after the first Chinese Head Tax was introduced, the Canadian government officially apologized to the Chinese-Canadian community for this historic injustice in 2006. Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the Government of Canada offered symbolic financial redress of $20, 000 to the living Head Tax payers or their surviving spouses.

The recognition of the wrong that was done to the Chinese allows Canada to take a step in the right direction. Although an apology and financial redress cannot mend all of the mental and physical hardships that were caused and endured, Chinese-Canadians can now feel that their experiences are recognized in Canadian history.

The Head Tax affected me on a personal level. My great-grandfather immigrated to Canada in 1914, from Guangzhou province, China. Although, I was not alive to experience firsthand the negative effects of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act on my family, I am now living the type of life my great-grandfather came to Canada for. I am grateful to my ancestor for moving to Canada in search of a better life for his future generations.

As a third generation Chinese Canadian descendent of a Head Tax payer, I had not heard much about the Head Tax issue until the Canadian government recognized the wrongs of their past and provided redress to the living head tax payers and surviving spouses. It was then that my grandfather and father started talking about how my great-grandfather immigrated to Canada. Many will say that the Harper Conservative government has not done enough to significantly heal the wounds of Head Tax families.

Because of the small number of survivors, it would appear as though the government had waited until the number of survivors dropped to a manageable number making for a cheaper apology. In addition, some members of the Chinese-Canadian community believe that more financial redress should be extended to all Head Tax families, as they were also directly affected by the economic and social hardships endured.

I believe the fact that an apology was made in the first place is the key aspect, which should allow the government to “move on” from their racist past. I believe the Head Tax Families Society of Canada should continue to keep the history alive. If not for the redress, I would not have been aware of the history of my great-grandfather. A cause is as strong as the people who continue to believe and support it. We should never forget our past and continue to educate the world about the hardships that our ancestors went through.

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