Canada's Turn-of-the-Century Head Tax on Chinese Immigrants
ANCHOR: Dan Matheson
GUESTS: Yew Lee, Son of Chinese Who Paid Head Tax in Canada; May
Cheng, President, Chinese Canadian National Council
MATHESON: Three Canadians today begin what could be a pretty long legal
battle for compensation. The Canadian government levied a head tax on
all Chinese immigrants at the turn of the century. This tax endured for
more than 60 years. Is an apology long overdue? Joining us now from Ottawa:
plaintiff Yew Lee. His father paid 500 dollars to enter this country in
1913. And in the studio is the resident of the Chinese Canadian National
Council, May Cheng. Good morning, you two.
LEE: Good morning, Dan.
CHENG: Good morning.
MATHESON: Yew, can we ask you about your parents and the circumstances
by which they came to Canada?
LEE: Sure. This is pretty recent history for me. It is my father. This
is a copy of the head tax that --
MATHESON: Is that his photograph on it?
LEE: Yes, that's him here. He paid 500 dollars. There was a Controller
of Chinese immigration at that time. This was legislation directed at
Chinese only. He came in 1913, he was, I would say, the model immigrant.
And 500 dollars is probably the equivalent of 60 or 70 thousand dollars
today to work off. He borrowed that to come into the country, stayed here
MATHESON: Became a Canadian citizen.
LEE: Became a Canadian citizen not until 1948. I think that's the only
time he could have become a Canadian citizen.
MATHESON: And he went back home to China to marry?
LEE: He went back home in 1930, married. In the 20 years of his marriage
he was only able to see my mom three of those years.
MATHESON: And she wasn't allowed to enter this country until what year?
LEE: No, there was a Chinese Exclusion Act, so families weren't allowed
to unite. And, well, he came here to build a better life and I guess he
was hoping to bring his family together, and he held that hope, but I
guess he was told that he wasn't good enough.
MATHESON: May, tell us about this lawsuit.
CHENG: Well, this is an action, it's a class action that's been brought
in the Ontario courts today. And it is seeking compensation not only for
the head tax but for the widows and first-generation descendants who suffered
under that discriminatory legislation.
MATHESON: Do you know how many people are effected by this? And have contacted
many descendants? And how many people are left that actually paid the
CHENG: First, there was 81,000 Chinese that paid the head tax. And over
the years the Chinese Canadian National Council took up as its mandate
trying to seek redress for the victims of these past acts. We had over
1,000 head-tax payers registered with us in 1991. I don't know how many
are left today, but we're hopeful that starting this action will draw
these people out and they will come forward, they will come to our organization,
to sign up. And we want them to take part in the settlement. Now, there
are a larger number of first-generation descendants. And Yew Lee is one
MATHESON: I'm trying to do the math in my head. Help me out here. You
told us the number of people affected by the tax, paid the tax?
CHENG: Eighty-one thousand.
MATHESON: Eighty-one thousand, times 500 dollars at that time. What kind
of a pool of money are we're looking at, in today's dollars?
CHENG: Well, even though the tax started out at 50 dollars it came up
to 500 dollars in 1903. And there's 23 million dollars that was collected
by the Canadian government. It was a significant source of revenue at
MATHESON: Now, tell us about who the specific plaintiffs are.
CHENG: We have Yew Lee, he's the first-generation descendent. And as a
widow representative we have his mother, Wen Ying Lee [sic]. And the head
tax-payer is Shack Jang Mak [sic] and he's 93 years old and he lives in
a seniors' home in North York.
MATHESON: Yew, can you tell us, has this been something that has bothered
you for a long time? Has this been something that is new to your life?
LEE: Oh, it's not new. It's a family legacy. It's something my mother
always tells me about, that they were separated for one period of 13 years
where there was no communication at all. Part of it is due to the Chinese
Exclusion Act. Part was due to World War II. My mom couldn't come to Canada.
My father wanted her to come. Immigrants in Canada know how important
that is, to bring the family unit together.
MATHESON: Well, thank you for sharing your story with us today. Thank
you very much.
LEE: Thank you. Thank you, May.
CHENG: Thank you.