One member of a Canadian family that was forced to pay the Chinese head tax says the hurt from this history cannot be undone without a meaningful gesture from the federal government, in the form of a letter and financial settlement.

About 400 head tax survivors and widows of survivors received $20,000 from the federal government in 2006, leaving out thousands of families who did not have a surviving member in 2006.

Families of immigrants who paid the Chinese head tax still feel the frustration today, says Karin Lee, who has three head-tax payers in her family.

"Why are those conversations so quiet in some of those families — because there is shame."

Lee, a filmmaker and UBC professor, says a personal message and symbolic payment would go a long way to helping families find closure.

"If there's a letter that goes to the family, a very symbolic payment … the descendants can take that letter and have a one on one with their grandchildren, or their grandchildren and say, this is the history of our family."

Canada imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants coming from 1885 to 1923 and prohibited immigration from China altogether from 1923 to 1949. It's estimated about 82,000 Chinese paid the tax, which at one point was the equivalent of two years' worth of wages for a Chinese labourer.

'Apart for generations'

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Canada imposed a tax on Chinese immigrants coming from 1885 to 1923 and prohibited immigration from China altogether from 1923 to 1949.

Lee's maternal great grandmother and then five year old grandmother came to Canada in 1901 and settled in Barkerville, B.C. Her paternal grandfather settled in the Prairies in 1903. All three of them paid the head tax to enter Canada.

Lee's paternal grandfather could not afford to bring his family over, especially when the head tax increased to $500 in 1903.

His wife finally joined him in 1947 after the Exclusion Act banning Chinese immigration was lifted, but he had found someone else during the decades they were apart, according to Lee. She says the ordeal pushed her grandmother to take her own life after arriving in Canada.

Lee says if her great grandparents were still alive, they would want some recognition of the injustice that was done to them, and that's what she's pushing for today.

"I think that they would have liked to hear from the government that it was a racist, unfair tax that kept their families apart for generations and that they're sorry it happened in a very personal letter."


To listen to the full audio, click the link labelled: Call for more Chinese Head Tax reparations.