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Redress at last for Chinese head tax

They risked their lives to help build Canada's railroad in the 1880s. But as soon as the work was done, Canada just wanted them gone. It was the beginning of a difficult history for Chinese immigrants to Canada. They struggled through the head tax, personal attacks and job discrimination. But the Chinese in Canada persevered. And today, Chinese-Canadians are an integral part of Canada's multicultural society, forging their own cultural identities.

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How can the Canadian government make up for a discriminatory head tax levied on thousands of Chinese immigrants many years ago? For the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, the $12.5 million it negotiated for a new community foundation is enough. But the Chinese Canadian National Council disagrees. As a CBC reporter learns, the council is calling for an apology and individual compensation for all still-living head tax payers or their descendents. 
• One week after this clip aired, on Nov. 24, 2005, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians and 14 other Chinese-Canadian groups signed a deal with the federal government. It would pay $2.5 million towards a foundation that would promote "acknowledgment, commemoration and education" about the head tax and the Exclusion Act that kept Chinese immigrants out from 1923 to 1947.
• According to the Toronto Star, the government was "eager" to sign the deal before an imminent election call.

• The Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), founded in 1979, was furious with how the deal was made. It said it represented 4,000 head tax payers and their families.
• Susan Eng, co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Head Tax Payers and Families, said Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan had made "a secret deal with his political cronies."
• "You can't appease everybody," Chan responded. "We have to take into consideration the government's responsibilities to the Canadian taxpayers."

• Sid Chow Tan of the CCNC said the National Congress of Chinese Canadians was a pro-China group that split from the CCNC after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
• Given China's human rights record, Chow Tan suggested the congress was not the right group to negotiate head-tax reparations. In a letter to the Georgia Straight, he asked: "how much credibility can. the Congress, with its coziness to the People's Republic of China, have on human rights in Canada?"

• In 1995, the federal government began charging a "right-of-landing" fee of $975 to all immigrants entering Canada.
• Pat Martin, an NDP MP from Winnipeg Centre, said in 2001 that the fee was "a racist head tax because it is selective by nature. [It] does not seem like an insurmountable barrier for a person coming from western Europe, Australia or the United States. However, for a person from the Sudan, the Philippines or Southeast Asia, that could be two years' salary."

• Between 1885 and 1923, the head tax was levied on about 81,000 Chinese immigrants and netted $23 million for the Canadian government.

• On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally made an official apology for the head tax. A VIA Rail train, dubbed the "Redress Express," brought more than 100 passengers who were either head tax payers, their widows or their descendants to Ottawa to hear the apology.

• Harper, who called the apology the "decent" thing to do, also declared that the government would pay $20,000 to each living person who paid the head tax or to surviving spouses. According to a June 22, 2006, Globe and Mail article, "The government has apparently identified 29 (living) people who paid the tax, but there are roughly an additional 250 to 300 widows still alive."

• In a Canadian Press story about the apology, 88-year-old head tax payer James Pon expressed his satisfaction: "I am grateful that I lived to see this day after so many years of trying to get the Canadian government to say 'sorry.'"
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Nov. 17, 2005
Guests: Raymond Chan, Susan Eng, Ping Tan, John Williamson
Host: Diana Swain
Reporter: Michelle Cheung
Duration: 2:44

Last updated: May 16, 2014

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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