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A History of Exclusion

They have been in Canada 150 years, but for much of this time Chinese Canadians were unwelcome in this country. It started in 1885 when the Canadian government imposed a Head Tax on all Chinese immigrants entering Canada. By 1923, the government intensified its anti-Chinese efforts by making it virtually impossible for Chinese people to immigrate to Canada. This period of exclusion and legislated racism lasted until 1947. No other ethnic group was targeted in this way. Why did the federal government take such severe actions against Chinese people? To understand the motivation behind these discriminatory acts, it is necessary to trace the arrival of the Chinese in Canada.

Arrival of Chinese in 1858
The first wave of Chinese came to Canada in 1858 to pan for gold in British Columbia. Most of these migrants were young, landless, illiterate men from the province of Guangdong in southern China. They were drawn by the lure of ¡°gold fever¡± as much as they were escaping harsh conditions in China such as famine, internal rebellions, population pressures and the threat of Western colonialism. Most of these ¡°sojourners¡± sent remittances to their families back home while hoping to save enough money to retire in China.

Construction of the CPR
The next wave of Chinese migrants came to Canada in the 1880s to build the final section of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in British Columbia. Recruited from China, they were given the most dangerous tasks like working with explosives, tunneling and carrying massive rocks. Due to the harsh conditions they faced, approximately four Chinese died for every mile of the CPR[1]. They earned one dollar a day -- two-thirds of the wage a white man earned[2].

As soon as the CPR was completed in 1885, British Columbia was hit with an economic recession causing massive unemployment. Fearful that cheap Chinese labour would take jobs away from whites and push wages down, various labour groups pressured the federal government to intervene. At the same time, many politicians in British Columbia raised alarm about the consequences of uncontrollable Chinese immigration. The federal government thus took steps to limit the Chinese population in Canada.

Anti-Chinese Legislation
Passed in 1885, the first anti-Chinese policy[3] took the form of a $50 Head Tax imposed on almost every Chinese person entering Canada. Despite the Head Tax, Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada as conditions in China were much worse. As a result, the Head Tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. In the early 20th century, $500 represented two years of wages for Chinese labourers.

Unable to curtail immigration from China, the federal government enacted the Chinese Immigration Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act) in 1923, prohibiting almost all Chinese immigration to Canada. The Exclusion Act came into effect on July 1st or Dominion Day (later Canada Day). Though a time of celebration for most Canadians, the Chinese observed July 1st as ¡°Humiliation Day¡± and closed their businesses and boycotted festivities each year.

By 30 June 1924, all Chinese were legally required to register that they were residents of Canada. Those who did not comply faced a $500 fine; one year imprisonment or both. To help enforce the Act, immigration officers were allowed to arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally[4].

After the Second World War, racist attitudes towards the Chinese began to soften and calls for the repeal of the Exclusion Act became stronger. In 1941, China and Canada fought as allies in the war along with the United States and Great Britain. As well, around 500 Chinese Canadians volunteered to serve in the Pacific while others raised relief funds and bought victory bonds. Newspapers across the country began to praise Chinese Canadians for their patriotism and contributions to the war effort. At the same time, the United States repealed its Chinese Exclusion Act in 1944 while Canadian efforts to eliminate the Exclusion Act grew more forceful. After much deliberation, the federal government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947.

Consequences of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act
By the 1950s, most of the discriminatory policies aimed at the Chinese had been eliminated. Chinese Canadians now had the right to vote in federal elections, become citizens of Canada, and practice previously barred occupations that required one to be a citizen, such as pharmacy, law, teaching and politics[5]. However, six decades of legislated racism had taken its toll on the Chinese Canadian community.

During the 24 year period that the Exclusion Act was in place, fewer than 50 Chinese people were allowed into Canada. Census data shows that the Chinese population declined between 1921 and 1951, from 39,587 to 32,528[6]. In Alberta, the Chinese population fell from 3,581 in 1921 to 3,122 in 1941[7]. Aside from a drop in numbers however, the most devastating effect of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act was on the family

Unable to afford the costly Head Tax fees, most Chinese men could not bring their wives and children to Canada. During the exclusionary period, the federal government banned Chinese men from bringing their families to Canada period. As a result, the Chinese Canadian community became a ¡°bachelor society.¡± Wives and families were separated from their husbands and fathers for almost a quarter of a century or longer ¡ª some were never reunited.

Chinese pioneer, Cecil Ing came to Canada in 1923 and worked as a dishwasher and waiter for many years. He returned to China to find a wife, but was unable to bring her back to Canada because of the Exclusion Act. ¡°Isn¡¯t that ridiculous?¡± he asked. ¡°I¡¯m only human. How would you like that?¡± [8]

Discriminatory Immigration Laws Continue until 1967
Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947, the federal government did not eliminate all restrictions on Chinese immigration to Canada. Against the backdrop of Cold War anti-Chinese feeling, immigration policy still favoured Europeans over Asians. Where as other immigrant groups only had to be residents to bring their families to Canada, Chinese Canadians had to be citizens. They were also prevented from bringing their children over 18 to Canada.

In 1967 the federal government finally issued one set of immigration rules for applicants for all countries, allowing the Chinese to enter Canada based on their own merit. The new points system favoured those who spoke an official language, had higher education and desirable job skills. Thus, the last vestiges of overt discrimination were eliminated from Canada¡¯s immigration policy.

Apology to Chinese Canadians
On June 22, 2006, newly-elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons and apologized for Canada¡¯s treatment of Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1947. ¡°¡­On behalf of all Canadians and the Government of Canada, we offer a full apology to Chinese Canadians for the Head Tax and express our deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants.¡± Harper went on to say that, ¡°For over six decades, these race-based financial 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.¡± [9]

Harper further announced that the government would offer ¡°symbolic payments¡± of $20,000 to living Head Tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers. He also pledged to establish funds to help finance community projects and education programs that acknowledge the impact of past wartime measures and immigration restrictions on ethno-cultural communities.

Though some argue that no amount of money can fully compensate those who suffered, many were pleased that the government finally acknowledged the harm done to generations of Chinese Canadians. ¡°All I ever wanted was an apology and for the government to set the record straight,¡± said 81-year-old veteran Alex Louie[10]. Another early pioneer, Mary Mah said, ¡°The sorrow and hardship cannot be erased. But we can now begin to feel. In truth, I did not expect to live to see this. I don¡¯t know about you, but I am feeling very Canadian.¡± [11]

In total, the federal government collected around $23 million[12] from roughly 82,000 Head Tax payers. In today¡¯s currency, this would be around $1 billion[13].

Back Story to the Redress
Nowadays, relatively few Head Tax payers remain and those who are alive are mostly in their 90s. Why did it take so long for the federal government to offer redress to Head Tax victims?

One answer is previous governments did not feel obliged to make amends for past policies. When sent redress petitions by several minority groups in the early 1990s, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone stated: ¡°We wish we could relive the past. We cannot¡­We believe our only choice lies in using limited government resources to create a more equitable society now and a better future for generations to come.¡± [14]

Others speculated that the government stalled for fear of being sued for financial compensation if it apologized for past wrongdoings. A Chinese Canadian victory would open the door to other ethnic groups seeking redress, like Italian, Ukrainian and German Canadians among others. Still others pointed out that unlike Japanese Canadians who received redress in 1988 for war-time injustices, Chinese Canadians were never interned nor were their belongings and property sold. Rather, the Chinese were fully aware of Canada¡¯s Head Tax policy before they immigrated and thus had no right to complain. [15]

Driven by their belief that the federal government should not profit from racism, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) continued its decades-long fight for justice. In 2000, it backed a class-action suit against the government arguing that the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act had contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Though unsuccessful, the CCNC intensified its efforts with a new redress website and campaign. In April 2004, a United Nations representative recommended that Canada should strongly consider paying reparations for the Chinese Head Tax.

Failed Liberal Deal
In 2005, the Liberal government headed by Paul Martin negotiated a $12.5 million deal with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians for a new community foundation to recognize the historic injustice of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act. However, the government refused to offer a parliamentary apology or financial compensation to victims and their families. By the time, the National Congress and 14 other Chinese Canadian groups agreed on the terms, the offer had been reduced to $2.5 million.

Outraged with how the deal had been made, the CCNC rejected the government¡¯s offer. Instead, they argued that the government needed to apologize for the harm done to generations of Chinese Canadians and make financial restitution to living Head Tax payers and their descendants. They continued to press for direct redress. [16]

Conservatives offer Redress
It was not until Stephen Harper¡¯s minority Conservative government was elected in 2006 however that real progress was made. Susan Eng, Co-Chair of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families, argues that it would be tempting to say that it was the ¡°masterful handling¡± of a national grassroots campaign that won over the public, media and politicians, but it is unlikely. Rather, she contends within a few short months the Head Tax redress became an election issue, threatening the seats of several cabinet ministers unless resolved in a timely manner[17]. Others point out that 22 federal ridings had sufficient numbers of Chinese Canadian voters to influence the electoral outcomes and these groups traditionally voted Liberal[18]. Even so, some contend, it is important not to discount positive human regard on the part of the government even if the redress was politically strategic.

Chinese Canadian Community Divided on Next Step in Healing Process
As of December 2007, the CCNC reports that a total of 607 redress payments have been issued[19]. Meanwhile the Chinese Canadian community continues to grapple with the next step in the healing process. While some are satisfied with the current redress, others want compensation for the immediate descendants of Head Tax payers while others call for the government to extend compensation to those families where both Head Tax payer and spouse have passed away. Still others want the government apologize to all Chinese Canadians for the racist policies of the past.

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