Nfld. & Labrador

A monumental task: Turning an act of 'disrespect' into a learning moment

The deputy mayor of St. John's says a construction site near the Chinese head tax monument was disrespectful and promises what was destroyed will be replaced. But the incident also presents an opportunity to reflect on the role monuments play in our lives.

Construction surrounding St. John's Chinese head tax monument presents an opportunity to reflect on the past

The Chinese Head Tax Monument is pictured here before the construction. (Submitted by Gordon Jin)

In nearly every community, there exist objects that can transport people back in time. Yet they can also become commonplace and invisible in our daily lives. We pass them on our commutes to school or work, not even noticing the connections to the past that surround us: monuments. 

Whether they take the form of statues, plaques or larger structures, monuments can act as a time machine of sorts, demarcating a part of our past as significant and worthy of being memorialized. But when we let monuments blend into the background of our surroundings, we run the risk of being disrespectful to members of our communities, both past and present. 

It's a phenomenon that raised its head in St. John's last month, when Sheilagh O'Leary, the city's deputy mayor, described "acts of disrespect" resulting from construction close to a monument dedicated to Chinese head tax payers. 

St. John's Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O'Leary says the construction work was disrespectful to the monument and the Chinese community. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, O'Leary said the Chinese head tax monument is located within a few feet of a city building on New Gower Street, which was under construction to replace siding and windows.

While some trees and bushes surrounding the monument were destroyed to set up scaffolding, she said the city inspected the monument and story boards before and after the construction and concluded there is no sign of damage.

But O'Leary said she does feel the way the construction was conducted was disrespectful to the memorial and she apologized to a resident who raised concerns about it.

In response to the complaint, the city cleaned up the site and, in a statement to CBC News, said parks staff will be replanting bushes, plants, trees, and flowers around the monument. 

"This should help clean up the area, and esthetically highlight this laneway and monument," O'Leary said.

In council chambers Jan. 10, O'Leary said the incident shows how "we could all reflect upon … how and why these memorials are set up, so that we can continue to learn and grow as a society."

So why is that monument there? And what does it mean?

Gordon Jin's father, Frank Jin, is seen here in 1939. He paid a $300 head tax, solely because of his race, to gain entry to Newfoundland. (Submitted by Gordon Jin)

"Many of us who live in this community, or this city, or this province, don't know that there was such a racist Chinese head tax enacted in the Dominion of Newfoundland over 100 years ago," said Gordon Jin, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Head Tax Redress Organization. 

The monument was erected to educate the public about its history, he said.

In 1906, Jin explained, the government of Newfoundland imposed a $300 head tax on Chinese immigrants, following a trend in Canada at the time in which Chinese immigrants were charged a head tax to dissuade them from immigrating to the country.

More than 80,000 Chinese men still paid the fee for a chance to live in Canada, which led to the Canadian government enacting an exclusion act, banning the Chinese from entering the country entirely.

However, pre-Confederation Newfoundland did not follow suit. The government barred the entry of Chinese women and children but allowed men to immigrate to the country, provided they pay the $300. Jin said, at the time, this was equivalent to three years' wages.

Gordon Jin provided this picture of one of the past instances in which the Chinese head tax memorial was vandalized. Racist language was written on the monument and shards of broken glass lay across the base. (Submitted by Gordon Jin)

Jin said his father was one of the men who had to pay the head tax upon entry to Newfoundland. He described the monument as "a living tribute" to the hundreds of Chinese immigrants who paid a large fee solely because of their ethnicity.

Although Jin didn't witness the construction, he called its description a "desecration."

This isn't the first time something like this happened, according to Jin. There've been instances of vandalism and graffiti on the monument in the past.

Memorial University professor Justin Fantauzzo says Ottawa's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, pictured here, is a memorial designed to be for anyone who lost a loved one in conflict. (Chris Rands/CBC)

The location of the monument doesn't help, he added, pointing out that the memorial is located near drinking establishments on George Street. However, the choice to put the monument there is significant. 

"It's hallowed ground," he said, noting that the monument is located on the site of the first Chinese hand laundry in St. John's in 1895.

"People should recognize this is a memorial to past Chinese immigrants that made this their first home," Jin said. "And that resulted in the vibrant Chinese community that we have today."

In Newfoundland and Labrador, there have been ongoing calls for the statue of Gaspar Corte-Real to be removed, due to the figure's connection with enslaving Indigenous people. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

Justin Fantauzzo, an associate professor in the history department at Memorial University, says getting the public to recognize the history behind monuments has always been a struggle. 

"Ten years after the First World War, there were people who were talking about 'the new generation.' Kids who had been born in the 1910s didn't understand what the memorials were for," he says. 

These teens had trouble understanding the meaning behind monuments dedicated to the First World War, like the National War Memorial in downtown St. John's or the the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been in the headlines of late, after protesters associated with the trucker convoy were seen jumping on the monument and parking on the surrounding grounds. Figures such as Anita Anand, the minister of defence, denounced the actions of those who parked on the memorial as "reprehensible." 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established as a site where anyone could go to remember a loved one they lost. As the soldier in the tomb isn't known, "it could be anybody's loved one," Fantauzzo says, making the monument a highly personal one for multiple generations of Canadians.

Although a monument is usually accompanied by a plaque explaining its significance, Fantauzzo said it can still be hard for people to engage with the history behind these structures. "The best way you can probably get people to understand the importance of the memorials is just through the education system," he said.

Fantauzzo says monuments have been a hot topic in his field for the last few years, due to movements in the U.S., and globally, to remove statues of problematic and controversial figures. 

A work crew removes the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park in Chicago in 2020. University of Connecticut professor Alan Marcus says some monuments can become expired as society's values change. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via AP)

Alan Marcus, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut, says there have been calls in his state to remove statues of Christopher Columbus, in connection to the explorer's violent mistreatment of Native Americans. Marcus said monuments can become "expired" as society's values shift.

"What's acceptable in one time period might not be acceptable in a different time period," Marcus explained. These "expired monuments" can be repurposed to instead teach about "how we frame certain histories and whose perspective we learn about and whose perspective is left out."

But Marcus says incidents of disrespect at memorials, like at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the head tax memorial, are "not ways to repurpose monuments" and are instead "indicative of this larger divide in society." 

"There's a lot going on in the United States and in Canada right now where there's a lot of polarization and a lot of disagreement and people not willing to listen to each other," he said. 

This plaque is on the Chinese head tax monument in St. John's. Gordon Jin said while the location of the monument near George Street can be problematic, said Jin, it is the site of the first Chinese laundry. (Submitted by Gordon Jin)

But despite the difficulties, Marcus said, there are still opportunities to have productive discussions across political divides. 

Marcus said one way to increase public engagement with history is on holidays.

"There's opportunities during the year where we celebrate events or we honour people or we memorialize people or events, and we can do some of that in conjunction with the monuments that exist."

"No other immigrant group who came to Canada or the Dominion of Newfoundland faced such discriminatory legislation as the head tax, said Jin said.

"It's part of our history.… The Dominion of Newfoundland enforced some immigration practices that were at odds with our shared commitment to human justice and equality. We always wish that these episodes hadn't occurred. But, we can't rewrite history," he said.

"So look at this monument as a reflection of what happened. We must ensure our future generations don't repeat the errors of the past."

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William Ping


William Ping is a newsreader and journalist with CBC at its bureau in St. John's.