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

by William Ging Wee Dere (Montreal)

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II. The effect of State racism on Canada

I will get back to the effects of the Exclusion Act on my family in a minute. I want to talk about the effects these laws had on Canada and are still having on Canada.

The Head Tax was imposed in 1885, upon the completion of the CPR. Chinese labour was no longer in demand.

The Head Tax started at $50 in 1885. It was then raised to $ 100 in 1900 and finally $500 in 1903. It was abolished in 1923 to be replaced by the Chinese Exclusion Act. All together between 1885 and 1923, over 8 1,000 Chinese immigrants paid over $23 million in Head Tax. In today's dollars, that is over $1 billion. One can say that the Chinese community has already done its share to reduce the national deficit with its billion dollar contribution. At the same time that the government charged Chinese immigrants the Head Tax, it was giving European immigrants grants to settle Western Canada. You can say that Chinese immigrants helped subsidized the settlement of the West.

The Head Tax was the biggest source of debt in the Chinese Canadian community. Many Chinese borrowed the money to pay the government. To get an idea what $500 meant in those days, my house in Montreal was built in 1908 and it was sold for $250. So the money my father used to pay the Head Tax could have bought him two houses back then.

The Canadian government granted the CPR $25 million to build the national railway. Chinese immigrants had the distinction of not only building the railway but they also helped pay for it. The Canadian government profited from racism to the tune of $23 million.

The Government systematically destroyed the Chinese Canadian community with the Exclusion Act and other restrictions. The debates in Parliament as recorded in Hansard revealed the sentiments of the day ‑respected politicians, clergy and union leaders were openly saying that the Chinese were not fit to come to Canada, all Chinese should be sent back. The age old arguments of stealing jobs, contaminating the European culture, etc., were used against the Chinese.

This is the legacy of the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act on Canadian history. It is a legacy of racism and gross violation of human rights where one group of immigrants was singled out for state sanctioned discrimination. This is the historical foundation of the relationship between the Canadian government and the Chinese Canadian community.

The arguments used against the early Chinese immigrant are still used today to fuel anti-immigrant feelings. I feel very badly for today's immigrant who are forced to pay a new $975 Head Tax. Of course, this time around, all immigrants are treated equally. In 1903, when Sir Wilfred Laurier spoke in support of the Head Tax against the Chinese, he said it would be a good source of revenue for the government. In 1995, Paul Martin says the same thing about the new Head Tax. How much have we progressed in 92 years?

Let's go back to 1940. The Exclusion Act was having its effect. Chinatowns were dying. The 2nd world war was on. China was fighting on our side against the Japanese fascists. Chinese Canadians were being conscripted into the army. Many Chinese volunteered to fight for Canada despite the fact that they did not have any political rights. Many hoped that by fighting for Canada, the government would recognize their contribution to this country and grant them equal rights. The 2nd world war was a turning point in the Chinese community's relationship with the Canadian government. After the war, many Chinese Canadian war veterans campaigned for the repeal of the Exclusion Act and for equal rights. Also at that time, with the formation of the United Nations and the imminent passing of the UN Human Rights Charter, the Canadian government had to get its house in order. So in 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

The 1950's and 60's were the decades of re‑unification for thousands of Chinese Canadian families. I came to Canada with my mother in 1956. 1 was 7 and my father had not seen me since I was 10 months old. My mother was 51, my father was 53. They were like strangers when they met. They had to get to know each other all over again. They had lost the best years of their youth, being separated by Canada's racist laws.

My grandfather died in 1966. He was never reunited with his wife.


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