Original source: Edmonton Sun


Senior Features Writer
Edmonton Sun

Sunday, June 23, 2002

News Page 35

Photo Illustration
Caption: 'These racist measures and policies set back many Chinese families 20 years or more economically ...' – Kenda Gee, president of the Edmonton-based Head Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee, who displays his grandfather Cheung Gee's head tax certificate.

Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald - or so it's been attributed - once noted that "without the Chinese labourers, there would be no railroad."

Well, without the railroad there may have been no Canada; Sir John had anted the coast-to-coast service as a bargaining chip in the Confederation jackpot.

When British Columbia grew impatient that this much ballyhooed dream had yet to materialize by 1880, the Canadian Pacific Railroad quickly recruited labour directly from China for the dangerous work ahead.

Roughly 15,000 Chinese - falsely promised riches and a quick return home - were shipped to Canada.

Thousands died carving out the railway through the Rockies.

The completion of the national railway in 1885 transformed a colony into a country. The Chinese, however, were suddenly no longer welcome. A hefty "head tax" was slapped on Chinese immigrants until 1923, when immigration from China was all but eliminated.

The racist levy was cited by Maclean's as one of the top 25 events that shaped Canada in the last century.

Today, decades later, Chinese-Canadians hope that wrong will finally be righted by Ottawa.

"The question is not will Ottawa redress, it's when," said Kenda Gee, president of the Edmonton-based Head Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee. "Those involved are committed to a campaign until the day it comes."

Between 1885 and 1923, the federal government collected $23 million ($1.2  billion in current dollars) from 81,000 Chinese immigrants.

The $50 head tax was a significant cost, especially in 1903 when it hit $500 - worth two years' wages back then. Ottawa didn't tax other immigrants.

Paying off that $500 meant most Chinese immigrants spent entire lives in indentured servitude. And a lonely life it was; unable to afford to bring spouses and children over. Other legislative measures included restrictions on owning property and occupational choice.

And the head tax was taxation without representation. While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 remained in force until it was repealed in 1947, it wasn't until two years later that Chinese-Canadians finally got to vote.

For two decades Chinese-Canadians have sought redress from Ottawa. In 1994 they were turned down by Sheila Finestone, then federal multiculturalism minister, who said this country "cannot rewrite history."

A class-action lawsuit was launched. About 400 survivors and 4,000 of their descendants asked for $1.2 billion in compensation. And a formal apology.

Justice Peter Cumming of Ontario's Superior Court of Justice dismissed the lawsuit last year. He ruled the Charter of Rights, whose equality section took effect in 1985, cannot be applied retroactively. That legal decision is currently being appealed in Toronto. But Cumming did note that the goal of redress was worthy and suggested a political route.

Thus, the wait continues.

"It's been so many lifetimes that Ottawa has skirted the issue that to wait another lifetime is really nothing. It's very short. It's a question of when. And the sooner the better," said Gee, a legal scholar and filmmaker.

"But it would be a very hollow apology if those most directly affected were not here to see that day.

"In the last few months, in Edmonton alone, we've had three head taxpayers pass on."

Gee said the Toronto appeal is likely just the start of several private and class-action lawsuits. Groups are also considering an international legal claim.

A few months ago New Zealand issued a formal apology and entered into negotiations to compensate victims of its head tax on Chinese immigrants.

Australia, originator of the head tax, has yet to make concessions.

"Canada should follow the lead of New Zealand. What we need today is a show of contrition which has been absent from the Liberal administration," said Gee.

Was your family affected by this at all?

"Both my great-grandfather and grandfather who arrived in the early 1900s paid the tax. It was a very harsh measure on their lives," said Gee.

"These racist measures and polices set back many Chinese families 20 years or more economically and separated families and created a very dysfunctional community. Many of the Chinese who later arrived were separated from their parents for almost a quarter of a century so when they finally arrived in Canada they were, in essence, strangers to their own family," said Gee.

"The intention of these policies was to destroy the community because the whole idea is that they didn't want Chinese to settle in Canada. The policies, by and large, were very effective. They achieved their purpose."

Gee said for Ottawa, it's not just about the money.

"Had Ottawa accepted the settlement proposed in the 1990s, the amount would have been paid off in two-and-a half years, based on the annual budget of one of their smallest portfolios, multiculturalism. Canadians have supported the redress of Caucasian Hong Kong Second World War veterans, merchant mariners and civil log cutters for injustice covering short periods and large sums.

"Why not the Chinese? Race still makes us uncomfortable."

Interestingly, in 1988, Ottawa apologized and allocated $300 million to compensate Japanese-Canadians for interning them and confiscating their property during the Second World War on the basis of their race.

Since your great-grandfather and grandfather were involved, aren't you doing this for personal reasons?

"I'm involved with the campaign for personal reasons but also because I believe strongly that it's the right thing that should be done as a Canadian.

"Our society has institutions which we expect people to believe in. We have to restore the faith in those institutions," said Gee.

"When Sheila Copps can pay millions for Canadian flags it means little to the people who receive the flags unless the icons and institutions of society have a foundation in the belief they work for them.

"Flags have little meaning without the substance behind them," said Gee.

"The issue is about big government and vulnerable groups, and it's about government exploiting those who don't have a voice and getting away with it," said Gee.

"What we hope to accomplish by winning redress is to rebuild the faith in institutions for those who were adversely affected and to provide deterrents against bad policies in the future."

Such a small price to pay for those who helped build a nation.

Permission to reprint obtained from (& our sincere thanks to) Graham Dalziel, Editor-in-Chief; Erik Floren, Senior Features Writer; and, The Edmonton Sun Library/Archives.

Note: Erik Floren was recently named Feature Writer of the Year by the Edmonton Sun in July 2002,


Copyright 2002 The Edmonton Sun

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