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Chinese immigrants demand justice

The Story

"My grandmother was separated from her husband for the first 26 years of their marriage due to a racist law. That calls for justice," says Wong Ngui's grandson in this 2001 CBC Television clip. He's part of a growing movement in Canada demanding payment and a government apology to make up for the injustices of the Chinese head tax. This struggle has been going on since the 1980s, but with little success so far.

Medium: Television
Program: Canada Now
Broadcast Date: July 11, 2001
Guests: Sid Chow Tan, Avvi Go, Zool Suleman, Ngui Wong
Reporter: Christina Lawand
Duration: 2:20

Did You know?

• The Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) has been seeking redress for those affected by the head tax since 1984. They want financial compensation and a formal apology from the government.

• In 1988, those fighting for head tax compensation got a morale boost when the Mulroney government agreed to compensate Japanese-Canadians who were interned by the government during the Second World War. Mulroney formally apologized, and authorized payment of $21,000 to each of the surviving Japanese evacuees. The Chinese community thought the Japanese redress would set a precedent.

• In the early 1990s, several Canadian ethnic groups who were wronged by the government in the past - including the Chinese, Italians, Jews, Ukrainians, Doukhobors, Germans, Indians and African Canadians - sent redress petitions to the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone. They were denied in 1994. Finestone responded: "We wish we could relive the past. We cannot. We believe our only choice lies in using limited government resources to create a more equitable society now and a better future for generations to come."

• In December 2000, three Chinese-Canadians (backed by the CCNC) launched a class-action suit against the government. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, primarily on the grounds that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -introduced in 1982 - can't be applied retroactively.
• The decision was appealed. But the appeal was dismissed in Ontario Court of Appeal in 2002 and the Supreme Court of Canada in 2003. Ultimately, the courts felt the claim belonged in the political arena, not the legal arena.

• These losses haven't kept the CCNC from continuing its fight. In 2003, the CCNC launched a new redress website and a Canadians for Redress Campaign. This was publicly backed by a number of well-known non-Chinese Canadians, including writer/activist June Callwood and federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

• As senator Vivienne Poy pointed out in a 2003 speech, head tax payers and their descendents aren't all in complete agreement on this issue. Some feel that an apology alone would suffice (without financial compensation), while others don't "want to claim any damages at all, because their ancestors were given the opportunity to have a better life in Canada. And despite having to pay the head tax to enter Canada, the descendants are thankful for what they have now."

• Those who feel compensation isn't necessary believe the Chinese situation differs greatly from the Japanese situation in terms of severity. Monty Jan, chairman of the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver, argued in a 2004 Pacific Citizen article: "If the policy of the head tax was set up and the Chinese immigrants were fully aware of the details before they applied and were willing to pay, then there's nothing to complain about."

• In April 2004, a United Nations representative submitted a UN draft report recommending that Canada strongly consider paying reparations for the Chinese head tax. The government reviewed the recommendations, but stood by the 1994 decision to refuse compensation.
• As of 2004, no apology or compensation has been issued by the federal government.


Chinese Immigration to Canada: A Tale of Perseverance more