The Chinese community in B.C. received a formal apology today from the provincial government for historical policies that once targeted immigrants and residents.

The apology, which was introduced by Premier Christy Clark on Thursday morning, aims to recognize and make amends for 160 historical racist and discriminatory policies imposed in B.C., such as denying Chinese immigrants the right to vote and charging them a head tax to immigrate.

Chinese portrait

This portrait of Chinese men and women in Vancouver is part of the UBC archives collection. On Thursday, the B.C. government will apologize to the Chinese community in B.C. for past policies that once targeted immigrants and residents. (UBC)

Clark said the B.C. government supported the head tax and even took payments, so time has been set aside on Thursday for MLAs to debate and pass a motion officially apologizing for those measures.

"While the governments which passed these laws and policies acted in a manner that [was] lawful at the time, today this racist discrimination is seen by British Columbians — represented by all members of the legislative assembly — as unacceptable and intolerable," Clark told the legislature.

"We believe this formal apology is required to ensure that closure can be reached on this dark period in our province's history."

"The entire legislative assembly acknowledges the perseverance of Chinese Canadians that was demonstrated with grace and dignity throughout our history while being oppressed by unfair and discriminatory historical laws.

"Moreover, we acknowledge the overwhelming contribution by Chinese Canadians to British Columbia's culture, history and economic prosperity.

No compensation offered

There was no individual compensation offered as part for the apology, but Clark did announce the government would put $1 million into a legacy fund that would be used to fund educational initiatives.

Clark said the apology was formulated after nearly a year of hearings on the issue, which included debate on whether compensation should be offered.

"I think overall there wasn't as big an appetite for that, as there was for a genuine apology addressing the long list of wrongs that government over the last century have done," said Clark on Wednesday.

"Nothing is ever perfect. I don't think you can ever do something that everyone agrees with, but I really do think there's a really broad level of support for this apology and it is about time.

Over 100 people including community groups and descendents of those impacted by the historical policies were at the legislature to witness the event.     

"The Chinese community has been waiting 100 years to hear these words in our legislature, and it's about time they heard it," said Clark.

Clark said the apology has been endorsed by the governing Liberals, the Official Opposition New Democrats, the Green Party and Independent members of the legislature.

"I've always thought that this needs to be a bipartisan apology from the very, very beginning. I'm glad we've finally gotten here."

Last year, the so-called ethnic vote scandal revealed the Liberals' plans to win votes from ethnic communities in the provincial election with "quick wins," including apologizing for historic wrongs. The leaked documents led one cabinet minister to step down and two top aides to resign, and Clark to apologize in the legislature.

Feds apologized with compensation

In 2006, the federal government did offer compensation to surviving members of the Chinese-Canadian community who were forced to pay the head tax, saying the restitution allows Canada to move forward from the shadows of past wrongs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized in the House of Commons and offered the symbolic payment of $20,000 to roughly 400 survivors or their widows.

top-headtax061020

The federal government imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in 1885 after Chinese workers were no longer needed to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The first immigrants from China to B.C. arrived in Victoria in the 1850s to join the Fraser Valley Gold Rush. By 1872, they were prohibited from voting. The prohibition wasn't lifted until 1949 in B.C.

By the 1880s, construction of the CP Railway was employing thousands of Chinese immigrants. But after the railway was completed, to discourage further immigration, a $50 head tax was imposed in 1885, and by 1903 it was raised to $500.

It's estimated about 82,000 Chinese paid the tax until the Exclusion Act came into effect in 1923, effectively banning further immigration from China until 1947. Restrictions on Chinese immigration remained in place until 1967.

Full text of motion

"Be it resolved that this Legislature apologizes for more than a hundred laws, regulations, and policies that were imposed by past provincial governments that discriminated against people of Chinese descent since 1871, when British Columbia joined Confederation, to 1947.

"These laws and policies denied British Columbia's Chinese communities' basic human rights, including but not limited to, the right to vote, hold public office, or own property; imposed labour, educational and employment restrictions; subjected them to health and housing segregation, and prevented them from fully participating in society.

"The House deeply regrets that these Canadians were discriminated against simply because they were of Chinese descent. All members of this House acknowledge that we all aspire to be a fair and just society where people of all nations and cultures are welcomed, accepted and respected.

"Be it further resolved that the House acknowledge that the Chinese Canadian Community endured untold hardships and persevered with grace and dignity.

"We acknowledge that despite being subjected to discriminatory laws, policies and practices, the Chinese community has made, and continues to make, substantial contributions to the culture, history and economic prosperity in our province."

               

With files from Stephen Smart