"The Liberal reliance on the simple science of attrition remains fairly clear: a good Chinese is a dead Chinese-especially, if the issue can disappear with them."

Many Chinese never caught up after head tax

Reprinted from: The Edmonton Journal, A9.
Sunday, August 26, 2001

Kenda D. Gee
Guest Column

While the first Chinese arrived Canada in 1788, the last vestiges of overt discrimination were not removed until 1969. In the period 1884-1909, alone, no less than 100 provincial enactments were introduced in British Columbia.

Two years ago, Maclean's Magazine named the collection of punitive penalties, or Chinese head "taxes" from 1885-1923 as one of Canada's Top 25 Events This Past Century. It, and the Chinese Exclusion (Immigration) Act, which separated families for a quarter century thereafter, are icons of a protracted period of oppression lasting close to two-hundred years, or almost the entirety of their existence in this country.

By any account, the impact and monies profited through the enterprise of racism against Canada's Chinese are staggering. Chinese arrivals who were unable to claim exception under prevailing laws as "merchants, students, teachers, clergyman, or diplomats" each paid $500 into the federal government's General Consolidated Revenue Fund. (By way of comparison, in 1907, a lot in Edmonton's Norwood subdivision could be bought for $155.) The accumulated windfall of $24 million from this measure was enough to purchase Alaska three times, or build a second railway.

That $500 head tax forced most Chinese immigrants to spend their lives in indentured servitude.

Few realized that the policies targeting Chinese were at odds with Canada's international obligations as a dominion. British Imperialist interests compelled China, a defeated nation, to agree to the free flow of migration between Mainland and the Empire (its colonies and dominions) in order to allow the importation of opium that contributed to the political chaos from which many Chinese were later forced to flee.

Canada chose to model its Chinese head "taxes" after the white supremacy policies of Australia. Unlike Australia, however, which had abolished its own, the government in Canada continued to reap profits over four decades before announcing, remarkably, that they were "ineffective" in deterring Chinese immigration.

In fact, the Chinese in Canada constituted only a fraction of one percent of the national population until the 1980s.

The current Liberal administration has tried to by-pass its obligation to the Chinese community, through its multicultural policy. As laudable as multiculturalism may be, it neither addresses the enduring effects of past injustice, nor the unjust enrichment profited by government.

The Chinese community in Canada is not a homogenous group. Of the few positions of power represented by members of their community, virtually all are occupied by recent Canadians, or by Chinese Canadians whose families did not pay the Chinese head "taxes" because they had arrived either as merchants, diplomats, or other exceptional designation under the discriminatory laws.

If almost one-hundred percent of anglophone and francophone Cabinet Ministers today were born in Britain and France in spite of their community's rich history in Canada, how odd would that seem?

We can try to blame the victim--"Why did they have to come?" We can misplace the relevant-- "These were the sins of my forefathers"--and argue the arbitrary--"Why should we risk opening the floodgates?"

Or, we can educate ourselves of the historical facts, restore people's belief in the efficacy of our institutions, and transform our future by our actions.

The Liberal reliance on the simple science of attrition remains fairly clear: a good Chinese is a dead Chinese-especially, if the issue can disappear with them.

But the modern equivalent of dealing with the expendable Chinaman is nothing, if not nostalgically na´ve. While individual Chinese may pass on, unresolved issues do not. The failings of this Liberal administration will simply become their tarnished legacy, judged and written by those in my generation, tomorrow.

Kenda D. Gee is the chair of the Edmonton Head Tax and Exclusion Act (HTEA) Redress Committee and was a Co-panelist with Roderick A. Macdonald, former Dean of McGill Law School & Past Chair of the Law Commission of Canada, at the Roundtable on Reparations of Past Injustices hosted by the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) in Montreal, last June 2001.


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