PM unveils redress for head tax on Chinese

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised "symbolic payments" to Chinese immigrants who paid the head tax to Canada between 1885 and 1923, while offering a formal apology.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised "symbolic payments" to Chinese immigrants who paid a head tax to Canada between 1885 and 1923.

Widows of men who paid the head tax are also covered, Harper told the House of Commons on Thursday.

He also offered a formal apology for the fact that the tax was imposed, saying "the government of Canada recognizes the stigma and exclusion" the tax represented.

Only about 30 immigrants who paid the tax and several hundred widows of payers are still alive.

An estimated 80,000 Chinese immigrants paid the tax, which was intended to deter Chinese immigration after Chinese workers helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.

The tax started at $50 per person in 1885 and rose to $500 per person in 1903, equal to as much as two years' salary.

After it was withdrawn in 1923, the head tax was replaced by the Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from the country altogether until 1947.

In a journey dubbed the "Redress Express," about 100 people, including some who paid the head tax and their families, boarded a train in Vancouver last week to travel to Ottawa to hear the apology.

Jen Jung said the $500 head tax paid by her father, Wood Jung, was discriminatory.

"They did Chinese people a disservice," said Jung. "They didn't treat them like everybody else. Other people came into the country and they didn't have to pay a head tax."

Jung said it's about time the government apologized to Chinese immigrants who contributed to Canada's economy by doing odd jobs, opening new businesses and building the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Linda Ing said the train ride is making her father, 106-year-old Ralph Lung Kee Lee, remember his days working on the railroad.

Lee is the oldest surviving person to pay the tax. He carries with him a symbolic "last spike" given to the Chinese community by author Pierre Berton in recognition of the work done by immigrants to build the railway.

"He looks after it like a baby," said Ing.

James Pon, 88, whose father paid $1,000 to bring him and his mother to Canada, praised Harper for making the apology.

"I think he's doing it for compassion," Pon said. "At the same time, he recognizes the wrongs done to the Chinese people."

'An honourable compromise'

Jason Kenney, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, said before the announcement that he thought most Chinese-Canadians will be pleased with the package.

"It will be meaningful, it will be an honourable compromise, it will reflect a broad consensus in the larger Chinese-Canadian community and in the Canadian community at large," said Kenney.

The apology is an opportunity for Canadians to learn about a chapter of their country's history, "that we did actually target a particular group through laws and policies that were effectively racist."

Susan Eng, of the Ontario Coalition of Head Tax Payers and Families, called it a historic day.

"In our private lives, we remain responsible for all of our wrongs," said Eng.

"For the government to step up to the plate and say we take responsibility for our wrongs, I think it sends a major message to all Canadians of the kind of values we hold dear."

In 1988,Prime MinisterBrian Mulroney apologized to Japanese-Canadiansfor their internment during the Second World War.