Head tax apology advocates tell B.C. premier not to delay

The grandson of a Chinese immigrant forced to pay a head tax says British Columbia's premier shouldn't let her political woes interfere with delivering a meaningful apology for the policy.
Victor Wong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, is pictured in Toronto's Chinatown on April 2, 2008. He says despite recent political woes over a leaked 'ethnic vote' strategy, B.C. Premier Christy Clark should go forward with a meaningful head tax apology. (J.P. Moczulski/CP)

The grandson of a Chinese immigrant forced to pay a head tax says British Columbia's premier shouldn't let her political woes interfere with delivering a meaningful apology for the policy.

Victor Wong, speaking on behalf of the Chinese Canadian National Council, says he wonders about Premier Christy Clark's suggestion that the timing around an announcement for redress may now be affected by the ethnic vote scandal that has rocked her government.

Clark made it clear on CTV's Question Period on Sunday that she may need to postpone making any apology to avoid accusations that she is playing politics with the issue.

"I think it's the right thing to do — to apologize for the Chinese head tax. I am very committed to that," she said.

"I think, though, the apology needs to be seen outside of politics. It needs to be an absolutely genuine apology and if the discussion about all the rest of this is going to taint that, I say we wait."

Clark said there are two MLAs in the Liberal caucus whose parents paid the head tax, and that those MLAs are very passionate about seeing an apology come through.

"They've been working at this for years," Clark said.

Plan documents election 'quick wins'

A Liberal government document surfaced in late February suggesting the party would attempt to gain "quick wins" at the ballot box in May by issuing formal apologies to ethnic communities for historic wrongs.

The ethnic vote scandal has forced Clark's former deputy chief of staff and her multiculturalism minister to resign, as well as prompted an internal review.

But Wong said members of his community see themselves as apart from the political firestorm because the government has already offered an apology several times.

"The main message to Christy Clark is to say: 'Premier, please meet with the head tax families ... and please appoint a representative to negotiate a genuine apology,'" he said.

"If you say 'genuine apology,' then we will take you at your word. If you mean genuine apology, then it has to be an apology that we're willing to accept."

Wong said apologies will be considered real if the government also offers the 3,000 Chinese-Canadian families that were affected by the head tax a meaningful financial settlement.

"If we wanted just an apology, we would have got it back in 2011 or 2012 or early 2013," he said.

"It's been offered to us. We've rejected it."

Federal apology, compensation a model

Wong pointed to the federal government apology in 2006 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a model for the B.C. government to follow. The Conservative government made payments of $20,000 to living Chinese head tax payers and to living spouses of deceased payers.

The Canadian government began charging the head tax in the late 1800s to discourage immigration. The government of British Columbia, which was the thoroughfare when many immigrants from China arrived in Canada, received massive transfer payments back from Ottawa.

The Chinese Canadian National Council says when the federal government collected a total of $23 million in head tax levies, it transferred about $8.5 million back to B.C., which would be worth upwards of $1 billion today.

The CCNC began seeking compensation for affected families 30 years ago, and Wong said getting settlements from B.C. would finally close a chapter in Canadian history.

Provincial cabinet minister Ida Chong, one of the children of the head tax payers, was not available for comment on Sunday. MLA Richard Lee also did not respond to requests for comment.