The Chinese head tax was a fixed fee charged to each Chinese person entering Canada. The head tax was first levied after the Canadian parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. It was meant to discourage Chinese people from entering Canada after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The tax was abolished by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which stopped all Chinese immigration except for business people, clergy, educators, students, and other categories.
Prior to the tax…
Through the early 1880s, some 15,000 labourers were brought from China to do construction work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, though they were only paid a third or a half less than their coworkers. This immigration into British Columbia (BC) was large enough— some 3,000 Chinese, when the 1871 census counted only 33,586 residents of all races in the province— to arouse concern. The provincial legislature passed a strict law to virtually prevent Chinese immigration in 1878. However, this was immediately struck down by the courts as ultra vires [beyond the powers of] the provincial legislative assembly, as it impinged upon federal jurisdiction over immigration into Canada.
As a Dominion of the British Empire, Canada could only try to discourage, not completely eliminate, Chinese immigration at its borders. To do so, the federal parliament passed in 1885 the Chinese Immigration Act, which stipulated that all Chinese entering Canada must first pay a $50 fee, later referred to as a head tax. This was amended in 1887, 1892, and 1900, with the fee increasing to its maximum of $500 in 1903. Not all Chinese arrivals had to pay the head tax, however; some were presumed to return to China after "sojourning" to Canada because of their transitory occupation or background (students, teachers, missionaries, merchants, members of the diplomatic corps) and were therefore exempt from paying this fee.
Not only did the Crown in Right of Canada collect about $23 million ($300 million in 2013 dollars]) in face value from about 81,000 head tax payers, but the tax system also had the effect of constraining Chinese immigration; it discouraged Chinese women and children from joining their men, so the Chinese community in Canada became a "bachelor society". This discrimination still did not meet the goal, articulated by contemporary politicians and labour leaders, of exclusion of Chinese immigration altogether. That was achieved through the same law that ended the head tax: the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which stopped Chinese immigration entirely.
Movement for redress
The modern era redress movement may be traced back to 1984, when Vancouver Member of Parliament (MP) Margaret Mitchell raised in the Canadian House of Commons the issue of repaying the Chinese Head Tax for two of her constituents. Over 4,000 other head tax payers and their family members then approached the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and its member organizations across Canada to register their Head Tax certificates and ask CCNC to represent them to lobby the government for redress. The redress campaign included holding community meetings, gathering support from other groups and prominent people, increasing the media profile, conducting research and published materials, making presentations at schools, etc.
In 1993, then prime minister Brian Mulroney made an offer of individual medallions, a museum wing, and other collective measures involving several other redress-seeking communities. These were rejected outright by the Chinese Canadian national groups. After Jean Chrétien, in the same year, replaced Mulroney as prime minister, the Cabinet openly refused to provide an apology or redress. Still, the CCNC and its supporters continued to raise the issue whenever they could, including a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and eventually undertaking court action against the Crown-in-Council, arguing that the federal Crown should not be profiting from racism and that it had a responsibility under both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights law. In addition, the 1988 apology and compensation for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War were regarded as a precedent for redressing other racially motivated policies. The Ontario court declared in 2001 that the government of Canada had no obligation to redress the head tax levied on Chinese immigrants because the Charter had no retroactive application and the case of internment of Japanese Canadians was not a legal precedent. Two appeals in 2002 and 2003 were unsuccessful.
When Paul Martin was appointed prime minister in 2003, there was a sense of urgency as it became clear that there were perhaps only a few dozen surviving Chinese Head Tax payers left and maybe a few hundred spouses or widows. Several national events were organized to revitalize the redress campaign: In 2004, Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, concluded that Canada should redress the head tax to Chinese Canadians and, in 2005, Gim Wong, an 82-year-old son of two head tax payers and a World War II veteran, conducted a cross-country Ride for Redress on his motorcycle.
As they had done while campaigning for the federal election in 2004, the New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois stated, during the lead up to the January 2006 election, their support for an apology and redress for the head tax. Similarly, on December 8, 2005, Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, released a press statement expressing his support for an apology for the head tax. As a part of his party platform, Harper promised to work with the Chinese community on redress, should the Conservatives be called to form the next government.
The 2006 federal election was won by the Conservative Party, though it was a minority government that was formed. Three days after the ballots had been counted on January 23, but before he had been appointed prime minister, Harper reiterated his position on the head tax issue in a news conference: "Chinese Canadians are making an extraordinary impact on the building of our country. They've also made a significant historical contribution despite many obstacles. That's why, as I said during the election campaign, the Chinese Canadian community deserves an apology for the head tax and appropriate acknowledgement and redress."
Formal discussions on the form of apology and redress began on March 24, 2006, with a preliminary meeting between Chinese Canadians representing various groups (including some head tax payers), heritage minister Bev Oda, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Jason Kenney resulting in the "distinct possibility" of an apology being issued before July 1, 2006, to commemorate the anniversary of the enacting of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. The meeting was followed by the government's acknowledgement, in the Speech from the Throne delivered by Governor General Michaëlle Jean on April 4, 2006, that an apology would be given along with proper redress.
From April 21 to April 30, 2006, the Crown-in-Council hosted public consultations across Canada, in cities most actively involved in the campaign: Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, and Winnipeg. They included the personal testimony of elders and representatives. On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology and compensation only for the head tax once paid by Chinese immigrants. Survivors or their spouses were paid approximately CAD$20,000 ($22 thousand in 2013 dollars]) in compensation. There were only an estimated 20 Chinese Canadians still alive who paid the tax in 2006.
Currently, the major issues revolve around the content of any future settlement, with the leading groups demanding meaningful redress, not only for the handful of surviving "head tax" payers and widows/spouses, but first-generation sons/daughters who were direct victims, as told in the documentary Lost Years: A People's Struggle for Justice.
As no mention of redress for those children was made, the Chinese Canadian community continues to fight for a redress from the Canadian government. A national day of protest was held on July 1, 2006 in major cities across Canada, with several hundred Chinese Canadians joining in local marches.