Head Tax Redress Campaign
||The history of immigration in Canada has been a history of racism and exclusion. One of the most deplorable pieces of legislation was the Chinese Head Tax of 1885-1923 which was levied only on Chinese immigrants. Between 1923 and 1947, the Canadian Government enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act to prohibit Chinese immigration. These 62 years of legislated racism led to separation of families and significantly hindered the community's development. CCNC has campaigned for Head Tax redress since 1984.
CHINESE HEAD TAX AND EXCLUSION ACT
CCNC AND THE REDRESS CAMPAIGN
In 1983, a Chinese Head Tax payer named Mr. Dak Leon Mark in Vancouver approached his M.P., Margaret Mitchell to ask her to help him to seek a refund of the $500 racist Head Tax that he had paid when he immigrated to Canada. Ms. Mitchell raised the issue in the House of Commons in February 1984, but the request was denied.
Soon after, thousands of Head Tax payers and families also demanded a refund for the Head Tax that they their parents had paid approached CCNC and its member chapters to advocate on their behalf. CCNC and its chapters, accepted the mandate and registered 4,000 Head Tax payers and families over the past 22 years.
The redress campaign has gone through many phases. CCNC made head tax redress a priority in 1987 in preparation for the 1988 Federal election. CCNC worked hard alongside with the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) for redress and fully supported the historic settlement that was awarded to the Japanese Canadian community in 1988. The Government of Canada, however, did not extend redress to the Chinese Canadian community.
CCNC continued its redress campaign by holding numerous community meetings, gathering support from other groups, and prominent Canadians. CCNC also increased its media profile, conducted research, published materials, and made presentations in schools across the country. CCNC also continued to lobby politicians and met with every Multiculturalism Minister.
In the early 1990’s, the focus of the redress campaign shifted to B.C. with the emergence of the B.C. Coalition of Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Descendants. This grassroots group registered over 1,600 new Head Tax families in support of CCNC and its redress efforts. A number of large community meetings were held to keep the pressure on the Government and the spotlight on the redress campaign.
In 1993, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, tried to settle various community redress claims by offering individual gold medallions, a Nation Builders Hall of Record, and other collective measures. This proposal was rejected outright by the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian Canadian national groups.
After Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was elected in 1993, his Government openly refused to provide an apology or redress. CCNC and its supporters continued to raise the issue whenever they could, including raising the issue to the level of the United Nations.
In 1999, CCNC began court action against the Government of Canada. The class action suit was formally launched in December 2000. This lawsuit was based upon the premise, that the Government of Canada, had been unjustly enriched by the Chinese Head Tax, in that it was a violation of international human rights that existed at the time, and also a violation of the s. 15 equality provision in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms due to the government’s discriminatory response to the redress claim.
While the court action was unsuccessful, the Ontario Superior Court judge who granted the early dismissal of the action stated that: "Parliament should consider providing redress for Chinese Canadians who paid the Head Tax or were adversely affected by the various Chinese Immigration Acts."
In 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin entered the scene. His apparent openness to addressing the Head Tax issue sparked renewed hope. The urgency of the situation became clear as there were noticeably fewer Head Tax payers who were still alive and able to come to community meetings.
CCNC launched the Last Spike Redress Campaign featuring a symbolic “last spike” of the Canadian Pacific Railway that the late Mr. Pierre Berton had donated to support the redress campaign. The “Last Spike” travelled across the country to raise awareness of the early contributions of the Chinese railway workers, to highlight our nation’s shameful treatment of the Chinese and emphasize the urgency to immediately redress those few surviving Head Tax payers and spouses.
In the summer of 2005, Mr. Gim Wong – an 80-year-old son of a Head Tax payer and a World War II veteran – started his cross-country Ride for Redress on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. He began in Victoria and was featured at news conferences and events across the country as he made his way to Ottawa and ended in Montreal. He left an indelible mark on everyone who met him.
In September 2005, Head Tax families formed the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families. Other regional Head Tax families groups also formed or were revitalized by the growing redress campaign - creating a network that eventually reached from Newfoundland to British Columbia to Iqualuit. The local redress seeking groups worked closely with CCNC to increase the pressure for a respectful response from the Government. However, political expediency won over in November 2005 when on the eve of the Federal election, the Liberal Government signed the ill-fated agreement-in-principle under its “Acknowledgement, Commemoration and Education” program with a Chinese Canadian organization that agreed to the preconditions of “no apology” and “no compensation.”
The Liberal Government chose to ignore CCNC and other redress-seeking groups that refused that precondition. The ensuing negative community response was overwhelming. With the solid foundation laid in the 22-plus years of the redress struggle and the momentum built up over the past few years, Chinese Head Tax redress became an election issue. The Chinese language media constantly raised the issue with candidates. Prime Minister Paul Martin started to backtrack on the “no apology” position, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and other Party leaders made an election promise for a Parliamentary apology and appropriate redress.
In February 2006, the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, Prime Minister-elect Harper, in his first public news conference after the election, made a special point of repeating his commitment to apologize and provide appropriate acknowledgement and redress to the Chinese Canadian community. This same commitment was expressed in the April 2006 Throne Speech. This was followed immediately by Canadian Heritage Minister Bev Oda and Mr. Jason Kenney, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, holding a series of community consultations across the country. It was an historic occasion for the Chinese Canadian community as the Government listened for the first time in an official capacity, to the compelling and heart-wrenching stories of Head Tax payers, their spouses, their sons and their daughters. There were many emotional moments at these packed meetings as the direct victims of this racist legislation told their stories of financial hardship, racist treatment, and the cruel separation of families for decades.
June 22, 2006 is a day we will all remember.
On this day, in the presence of more than 200 Chinese Canadian seniors and family members, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons and formally apologized for the Head Tax, Newfoundland Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. The collective sigh of relief was tangible, and the emotions that followed, will never be forgotten by those who were there to bear witness to this historic event. For those who were still alive, this was a long awaited moment; but for many more who had since passed away, the apology came too late.
As the Government moves ahead to symbolically compensate those surviving Head Tax payers and spouses, we cannot forget the heart wrenching stories of their children. We urge the Government to follow through on its pledge to redress all “direct victims” of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act, which would include the elderly children who experienced this period of legislated racism first-hand.
Honorable redress is restorative and will help to redefine our Chinese Canadian community as one that is rooted in 150 years of contribution to this nation. We are on the doorstep of a new era. Already there is a new confidence in the community and hope. Total reconciliation will bring about closure for all Head Tax payers and their families, and even for the broader Chinese Canadian community.
Redress will have a transformative impact on all Canadians, the lesson being that the national dream of a strong, united and inclusive Canada, is indeed possible.
Please see the following links provide archived information about the Redress Campaign. Please note that these documents pre-date the June 22, 2006 redress apology and announcement:
1. 2004 Redress Campaign Website
2. 2006 Redress Background Information
3. 2006 Redress Questions and Answers