FRONT COVER (Page A1) STORY
RIGHTING A WRONG BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE
Soon, Chinese who had to pay 'head tax' will have passed on
BILL MAH, Journal Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2000
Re-enactment of a sad time in Canada's history
Shaughn Butts, The Journal / Wally
Mah paid the tax in 1921.
A sense of urgency is driving the latest campaign to force Ottawa to make amends to Chinese immigrants forced to pay a head tax and follow other blatantly racist laws.
Many of the surviving Chinese-Canadians who paid up to $500 to come
to Canada--an amount that could buy a house back then--are elderly or infirm.
"It's very important that we redress this before the final headtax
payer passes on," said Kenda Gee, chair of the Edmonton Chinese Head
Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee.
"It's very sad."
Wally Mah, 97, paid the head tax when he came to Canada in 1921.
"The government should pay us back," said Mah.
"Oh, I don't care about $500 now. But that time it was hard."
It would be a hollow victory if lobbying efforts won amends from government
but came too late for the few remaining Canadians directly affected, said
The committee is collecting names on two petitions calling on Ottawa
and the British Columbia government to begin negotiations for a settlement
that may include an apology and compensation. Similar drives are taking place in Vancouver,
Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
To stem immigration from China, the federal government imposed a $50
head tax in 1855--after Chinese labourers were no longer required to toil
on the recently completed CPR railway.
The tax was raised to $100 in 1890 and $500 by 1904 [sic]. Immigrants
from other countries were not required to pay.
TAX / back of section
Stories of three generations / B3
act barred Chinese
Continued from A1
File Photo / Wally Mah's original certificate
"They only taxed the Chinese," said Mah, whose railway worker father paid the tax for him when Mah, then a teenager, came to Canada.
"The thing is we've got to treat everybody the same. Why did
the government do that?"
Ottawa collected about $24 million from an estimated 81,000 Chinese
immigrants while providing financial incentives for European migrants to
settle in the West.
The head tax inflicted "great economic hardship, disadvantage
and human suffering," says the petition.
An even harsher federal law was passed on July 1, 1923 at the urging
of the B.C. government. The Chinese Immigration Act, known as the exclusion
act, all but barred Chinese from entering Canada, creating a bachelor society
of male labourers in Chinatowns across the country.
Wives and children left in China became strangers.
The exclusion act "forced the unconscionable separation of Chinese
families and community for almost a quarter of a century, even though they
constituted less than one per cent of Canada's total population," says
Vince Mah, 67, who grew up in China never laid eyes on his father
in Canada until age 17. "I never had any close relationship with
my father because I had never seen him," says Vince, who worked in
restaurants after he was allowed in Canada in 1950., three years after the
exclusion act was dropped.
"If they didn't have the exclusion act, I might have been in
Canada, and my future back then could have been different."
Between 1923 and 1947 when the act was dropped, Canada allowed exactly
seven Chinese into the country.
Gee notes that it was only by an incredible set of circumstances that Adrienne Clarkson, now Canada's Governor General, and her family were allowed into Canada during a prisoner exchange in the Second World War.
The Canadian government rebuffed earlier lobbying for redress in 1994,
when Sheila Finestone, then Secretary of State for Multiculturalism announced
Ottawa wouldn't compensate ethnic groups for past discrimination.
A Saturday re-enactment of federal "tax collectors" forcing Chinese immigrants to pay a $500 head tax wasn't too far off the mark, participants were later told.
The staged event took place outside of the downtown library. At a
forum inside, it was explained that the father of Edmonton Eskimo great
Normie Kwong, when he arrived in Victoria, was carrying a single bag.
"His father literally brought a cloth bag with silver coins to
pay the head tax," said Kenda Gee. "It's all he had with him."
Gee is head of he Edmonton Chinese Head Tax Payers & Exclusion
Act Redress Committee.
The committee is part of a national coalition pressing Ottawa to make
amends for the head tax imposed on people from China.
Approximately 81,000 individuals paid "taxes" ranging from
$50 to $500 between 1885 and 1923. The fees amounted to between $18.9 million
and $24 million.
From 1923-47, at the urging of the British Columbia government, Ottawa
excluded Chinese immigration altogether, with the exception of a few occupations
like diplomats. That's how Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson's family managed
to get into Canada. [sic]
To illustrate the burden and hardships faced by many of Canada's Chinese,
members of the redress committee took turns rolling a large, papier mache
ball three city blocks, pausing briefly at the federal Canada Place building.
While the discriminatory fee is referred to as a tax, Gee said the
money wasn't used to benefit Chinese Canadians, who he said couldn't vote,
couldn't go into certain professions and couldn't go to places like Banff