head-tax-1st-cheques_cp_10965048

Thomas Soon (left), 97, and Charlie Quon, 99, hold government cheques, the first redress payments to Chinese Canadians who were forced to pay the head tax. ((Lyle Stafford/Canadian Press))

The federal government handed out the first redress payments on Friday to surviving members of the Chinese Canadian community who were forced to pay a head tax, saying the restitution allows Canada to move forward from the shadows of past wrongs.

Canadian Heritage Minister Beverley Oda presented the first cheques to five survivors, whose families were at a ceremony in Vancouver's Chinatown.

"In spite of obstacles, you persevered and help build a better Canada for all of us," Oda said Friday before handing the first cheque to 99-year-old Charlie Quon, who came to Canada by himself in 1923 at the age of 15 to live with his uncle.

Quon told CBC News earlier this year tha the would use the $20,000 payment to travel.

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

At a dinner in Vancouver hosted by a Chinese immigrant group earlier this month, Harper said the tax was "a moral blemish on our country's soul."

The cheques are ex-gratia payments, which means they are being made voluntarily without the giver recognizing any legal obligation.

"We as a nation are taking one more step in correcting past wrongs," Oda said Friday. "We must remember, so we do not repeat past mistakes.

Imposed between 1885 and 1923, the tax ranged from $50 to $500. It's estimated about 82,000 Chinese paid the fee until the Exclusion Act came into effect in 1923, effectively banning further immigration from China until 1947.

Similar legislation existed in the Dominion of Newfoundland, which imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants from 1906 to 1949, before it joined Confederation.

Some say it's not enough

CBC's Miyoung Lee, a reporter in Vancouver, said there is mixed reaction to the payments in the Chinese Canadian community, with some people saying the fight for redress is over while others say the compensation is not enough given the suffering that it caused.

Lee said there was a protest outside the hall where Harper spoke about the tax on Oct. 10.

At the dinner, Harper said of the head tax: "Addressing it directly and honestly has been an issue we felt strongly about for some time. Apologizing for the head tax was simply the right thing to do and it was long overdue."

In 1903, according to the Chinese Canadian National Council, the head tax was $500, which was the equivalent of two years' worth of wages for a Chinese labourer.

Lee said some members of the community say the payments are not true compensation. The council has sought redress since 1984.

Colleen Hua, national president of the council, said in a news release on Friday:"This is a restorative moment for the Chinese Canadian community as we begin a genuine process of reconciliation with the Canadian government."