A federal Liberal cabinet minister says he's changed his mind and Chinese-Canadians who paid the head tax to enter Canada should receive an official apology from the government.

Industry Minister David Emerson originally supported the cabinet decision in November not to issue an apology because it could open the government to legal action.

But Emerson now says that, after talking to lawyers, he believes a full formal apology would be in order.

"I'm led to believe there are alternative views on the question of legal liability for an apology, and indeed, under evolving international legal standards, an apology does not necessarily imply liability. So that for me is new information."

Emerson is seeking re-election in Vancouver-Kingsway, a riding with a large Chinese-Canadian population.

Liberal Leader Paul Martin has also been talking about the head tax this week. On Tuesday, he issued a personal apology on a Fairchild Chinese-language radio program. But Martin has said nothing to indicate his government would formally apologize for the head tax.

Just before the start of the election campaign, the Liberals promised $2.5 million to fund education programs as redress. But again, there was no apology and no individual compensation offered.

There has been widespread debate within the Chinese community over that decision during the election campaign.

Commentator Gabriel Yiu says Martin's apology this week is just lip service, and that people in Vancouver's Chinese community want a full apology in the House of Commons.

Yiu says this is all very opportunistic and is obviously about key ridings in the Lower Mainland – noting that Emerson and Ujjal Dosanjh both have large Chinese populations in their ridings.

The head tax became government policy in the 1880s. Chinese immigrants originally had to pay $50 per person to enter Canada and that was raised to $500 by 1903 – equivalent to two years' wages.

The tax was imposed out of fear that the immigrants would take jobs from non-Chinese people. The tax remained in place until the 1920s when it was replaced by a law barring all Chinese immigration. That law remained in the books until 1947.