Presentation to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Conference
"United Nations and Human Rights"
Halifax, Saturday, Dec. 9, 1995


William Ging Wee Dere (Montreal)

(Transcript - 3 pages)

I wish to thank May Lui and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission for inviting me to speak at this Conference. I will talk about the historic violation of the human rights of Chinese immigrants committed by the Canadian government. Even today the government continues to violate United Nations Human Rights Covenants by refusing to redress past injustices. The Chinese Canadian National Council is looking to the UN Human Rights Commission for support in its ongoing struggle for redress.

Before I get back to the UN submission, I wish to give you some history of the effects of state‑sanctioned racism against the Chinese community in general and in particular the effects on my family.

I. Personal Effects of the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese settled on the West coast of Canada in 1788, over 200 years ago. Our community's history is entwined with Canadian history in more ways than one. We all know about the Chinese railway workers. 17,000 Chinese workers came to build the CPR through the rockies to the Pacific ocean and 1500 of them died in the process. What else is written in the history books about Chinese Canadians? Do we know any of the names of the Chinese railway workers, the Chinese shipbuilders who settled on Vancouver Island, or the names of the Chinese farmers who applied their peasant skills in the interior of BC?

No, Canadian history does not tell us about any Chinese individuals, let alone any Chinese heroic and historical personalities in Canada. Why is that?

The reason is plain and simple. The Canadian government singled out Chinese immigrants by law to face state‑sanctioned racism for over 62 years, nearly half of Canada's history as a country.

No one dared record personal histories or accomplishments of Chinese Canadians when you have the full weight of the state telling you that the Chinese are not are equal and are not wanted in Canada. In fact there were more laws directed against the Chinese than any other ethnic minority in Canada. There were absurd laws like tax on rice; special taxes on laundries; Chinese restaurants could not employ white women; segregation of schools; Chinese were not given social welfare during the depression; and in Vancouver, a by‑law was passed to forbid the selling of vegetables brought into the city by a shoulder pole with two baskets hanging on either end.

The two laws that had the sole purpose of obstructing and preventing Chinese immigration and finally destroying the Chinese community in Canada were the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But what were the human consequences of these two racist laws? What happened to my family is typical of the effects of the Exclusion Act and Head Tax on the tens of thousands of other Chinese families.

My grandfather came to Canada in 1909 at the age of 25. He left behind a wife and two young sons. He had to borrowed from fellow villagers and overseas acquaintances the money for his voyage to Canada. Upon arriving in Vancouver, he was locked up in a detention camp for three weeks. He had to pay $500 before he could get his paper to land in Canada, his Head Tax Certificate, like this one that belonged to my father.

He worked 12 years to repay his debt and to save enough money to finance my father's trip to Canada. In 1921 at the age of 17, my father arrived in Vancouver. He, too, was locked up in a detention centre for three weeks along with many young boys, some of whom were no older than ten. My father also had to pay the $500 Head Tax.

My father returned to China to get married in 1923. While he was away, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that prohibited all Chinese immigration. When my father returned to Canada, he was unable to bring my mother back with him.

Over the next 33 years, my father saw my mother only 3 times, whenever he could save up the money for a visit home. My parents had their children during my father's brief visits back to the village. The Exclusion Act also prevented the overseas Chinese from staying away for more than two years or they would lose their right to return.

During the 1920's, 30's, and 40's, my father and grandfather worked long lonely hours in a laundry in Montreal, saving up money to send home to the family. The Chinese Canadian community was dying. It became a community of married bachelors where the men outnumbered the women by 10 to 1.

My father and grandfather were deprived of all political and social rights. They had to register with the immigration office after the Exclusion Act was passed. They had to carry their certificate of registration or they could be fined or jailed. This was similar to the pass book in apartheid South Africa. Further restrictions after the Exclusion Act prevented my father from becoming a Canadian citizen. He did not have the right to vote. Because of these restrictions, the Chinese were not allowed to join the professions or get a decent job.

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