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some dignity and redress for Humiliation Day

by May Lui | June 20, 2006

Community advocacy groups have been lobbying for more than 20 years for a wrong to be righted. On Thursday, June 22, 2006, a historic admission took place.

For over six decades, these malicious measures, aimed solely at the Chinese, were implemented with deliberation by the Canadian state. This was a grave injustice, and one we are morally obligated to acknowledge.

— Prime Minister Stephen Harper, June 22, 2006

With that said, Chinese Canadians who suffered from the impact of the Head Tax law and the Exclusion Act have finally seen some justice after decades of denial. On behalf of the government of Canada, the Prime Minister apologized in the House of Commons. He also expressed regrets for “the racist actions of our past.” For the event, a “Redress Train” had travelled to Ottawa – a symbolic journey for those who were former railway workers and their descendants. Hundreds of community members packed the Commons visitors galleries to witness the apology.

This marks an extremely historic day in our country's history and legacy. I believe today is a day for the Head Tax payers and their families to celebrate.

— Susan Eng, co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families

Along with the statement, roughly 20 living Chinese Head Tax payers and 200 “Golden Mountain” widows will receive $20,000 each. An estimated 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid the tax. Their children who live in Canada will receive no personal compensation, a decision some disagree with.

We acknowledge the high cost of the Head Tax meant that many family members were left behind in China, never to be reunited, or that families lived apart and in some cases in extreme poverty for years. We also recognize that our failure to truly acknowledge these historical injustices has prevented many in the community from seeing themselves as fully Canadian.

— Stephen Harper

The “Golden Mountain” widows were left stranded in China by the Exclusion Act. They raised children and tended to the family while men suffered alone in Canada. Once they were reunited with their husbands years later, they had to look after them in their senior years, only to be left alone again when their husbands died.

I can see the pain and loneliness still in my mother's eyes. She is entitled to justice - not just for my father, but also for herself. Nothing can compensate for the lost years of their youth, but redress will finally recognize their contributions to building Canada and that they did not suffer in vain.

— William Dere of the Chinese Canadians Redress Alliance

The government will also be establishing a $24 million “community historical recognition program” and a $10 million “national historical recognition program.”

I will never forget the stories told by survivors, their children and grandchildren. I will not forget the tears, the cherished family photographs and the Head Tax certificates, all testament to the sacrifices made."

— Bev Oda, Canadian Heritage Minister

history of Chinese labour in Canada

When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, it did so under the condition that a railway connection be built within ten years to link the province with eastern Canada. Sir John A. Macdonald wanted to cut costs by employing Chinese men to build the railway, as they were a source of cheap labour. In fact, Chinese workers were paid significantly less than white workers ($1 per day versus $5) to do the same dangerous job.

From 1880 to 1884 more than 12,000 Chinese workers worked on the railroad. They were not permitted to bring their spouses, children or any other family with them. Chinese railway workers built the most hazardous sections of the railway.

  • 3,500 lost their lives
  • only 1,500 were left by 1881

Once the railroad was completed in 1885, Canada no longer needed Chinese immigrants, and enacted the Head Tax legislation, originally at $50 per person, then increased to $100, then to $500.

In 1923, this policy was replaced by the Exclusion Act, which outlined that the only very specific groups of Chinese immigrants were to be admitted to Canada. The term “Humiliation Day” was coined because the Chinese Exclusion Act was put into law on July 1, 1923, formerly Dominion Day and now Canada Day.

From 1923 until 1947, less than 50 Chinese immigrated to Canada.

recent history
  • January 24, 2006 The day after the federal election, members of the Chinese Canadian community called on Prime Minister Harper to honour his election pledge. In response to the demands made by a number of advocacy groups before the vote, the Conservative Party, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois committed in writing to support a parliamentary resolution to apologize, and direct redress for the 250 surviving head tax payers and spouses. Community groups were asking the Canadian government to rescind the $2.5-million deal negotiated with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians and to promise open, transparent and inclusive consultations and negotiations with head tax families and the broader Chinese Canadian community as to the nature and extent of redress.
  • April 4, 2006 Governor General Michaëlle Jean indicated that the federal government would offer a formal apology and possible financial compensation for the head tax charged to Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923 in the Speech from the Throne. Heritage Minister Bev Oda and Member of Parliament Jason Kenney, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, immediately began a series of community consultations across the country. It was an historic occasion for Chinese Canadian communities, as the government listened for the first time to the compelling stories of head taxpayers, spouses, sons and daughters.

Both of my grandfathers went to Canada hoping to better themselves … Grandpa landed in Vancouver on April 18, 1918, paying the $500 head tax upon stepping on Canadian soil. He was 15 years old … After years of labouring in Canada he was able to save enough money to go back to China in 1925 … (H)e and grandma were married that year in China. The new couple had a long honeymoon and my grandfather returned to Canada in 1926, shortly after my mother was born … Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was no way for Grandpa or any Chinese person living in Canada to bring anyone of his/her family members to Canada.

— Rebecca Tam, granddaughter of a head tax payer, From the booklet Will They Be Heard?, created by the group Justice in Time

Rebecca’s grandparents were reunited in 1952, after 27 years of separation. Her mother had raised Rebecca entirely on her own. Rebecca wonders, “How much suffering and loneliness had they endured?” Unfortunately, Rebecca’s mother could not move to Canada in 1952, as she was now an adult, and was not qualified to come as a dependent child. Rebecca’s grandfather continued to try to bring his children and grandchildren to Canada, and in 1971, the entire family was granted immigration status, and made plans to come to Canada in July of that year. Then, in March 1971, the family received a letter from Canada that their grandfather had died of a heart attack at the age of 65. Rebecca’s mother’s lifelong dream of meeting her father was shattered.

All MPs received copies of the booklet Will They Be Heard? in May 2006, providing them with first-hand accounts of the pain and isolation experienced by so many Chinese Canadians because of government policy.

  • May 17, 2006 A press release announced that a letter was sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the Chinese Canadian National Council, which included these words: “We are seeking an apology and individual symbolic financial redress for those directly affected, including the few remaining Head Tax payers and surviving spouses and surviving children who experienced 62 years of legislated racism. CCNC is urging the Canadian Government to respect the family unit by treating the Head Tax payers and spouses at the same level.”
  • May 24, 2006 Prime Minister Harper met with families affected by the Head Tax. “This meeting speaks to the sincerity and personal commitment of the Prime Minister that Head Tax redress remains a priority of this Government,” Susan Eng, Co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families said. “The hopes and expectations of these Chinese Canadian pioneers and their families for fair and just redress are now placed in his hands and we expect that he will not disappoint them.”

“We urge the Canadian Government to provide equal symbolic redress for Head Tax payers and surviving spouses," Sid Tan, CCNC National Director, who attended the round table, said. "It is the victims, those who were directly affected, who hold the restorative power of forgiveness.”

Some groups across Canada have been actively involved in the struggle for justice for this issue:

  • Alberta: Chinese HTEA Redress Committee (Edmonton); Sien Lok Society of Calgary
  • British Columbia: Coalition of Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Descendants; Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity
  • Nova Scotia: Chinese Redress Committee (Halifax)
  • Ontario: Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families; Chinese Canadian National Council
  • Quebec: Chinese Canadian Redress Alliance (Montreal)
  • Saskatchewan: Chinese Head Tax Redress Committee

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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