In 1885, Quan Lee helped unite Canada.
Instead of being heralded, he was scorned.
Instead of being rewarded, he was forced to pay.
Like many other Chinese men living in Canada at the time, Lee was recruited as cheap labour to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, after the last spike was hammered in, the Chinese were ushered out.
“Without the railroad, we would not have the Canada as we have now,” says Lee’s grandson, Ben Chow. “It was the Chinese that built this country. They are the ones that sacrificed to keep this country together and yet the government has turned their back on them.”
According to the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), the federal government tried to deter more Chinese from entering the country by levying a $50 head tax, only on Chinese immigrants. That fee increased successively to $500 in 1903, which was the equivalent of a Chinese labourer’s two-year salary. To add insult to injury, the Chinese were denied the opportunity to claim Canadian citizenship.
“My grandfather didn’t even know why he had to pay the $50 after working on the railway because the language and communication wasn’t that good then,” says Chow.
By 1923, the tally on the number of head-tax-paying Chinese immigrants had risen to 92,000. The damage ran much deeper with the onset of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese immigrants from settling in the nation.
Families were torn apart as husbands were forced to stay in Canada, powerless to bring their wives and children to the west. Often at times, families were never reunited and children grew up without knowing who their parents were.
“It was government-sponsored legislative racism against the Chinese,” says Chow. “The government has the moral responsibility to complete this redress and erase this black spot from the history of Canada.”
On June 22, 2006, the federal government decided to finally make amends. In a throne speech ceremony in the House of Commons, PM Stephen Harper apologized to the 600 surviving head taxpayers, along with their spouses, who each received a redress of $20,000.
A political perspective
For MP Olivia Chow of the Trinity-Spadina riding, the redress was a “watershed moment.”
“Being acknowledged for the Chinese contributions to Canada – a lot of [Chinese people] feel very proud about that,” says MP Chow. “They feel now they are people.”
But the buck doesn’t end there.
“We are trying to extend it to family members because they were directly impacted also,” says MP Chow, who has been lobbying tirelessly for a sense of restitution since her first foray into federal politics. MP Chow worked as an assistant to the then-MP Dan Keith in the early ’80s. At the time, many Chinese seniors would visit the office with their head tax certificates seeking compensation.
“The greatest accomplishment is seeing a group of very involved community-based people coming together and not giving up from 1983 to 2006,” says MP Chow. “That’s 23 years that they just kept building the momentum, building the campaign and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Now that the campaign is finished, there are a lot of kids who are saying ‘I never actually got a chance to meet my dad,’ ” says MP Chow. “Should there be some sort of symbolic acknowledgement [for them] also?”
Waiting for restitution
Various social groups have lobbied for further settlement, saying the first generation Chinese-Canadians are equally entitled to a symbolic gesture of restitution.
Today, there are 4,000 first generation Chinese-Canadians who are still waiting for some sort of settlement.
Quan Lee’s grandson was not satisfied with the redress. As the co-chair for the Ontario Coalition of Head Tax Families, Ben Chow feels more should be done to compensate the payers.
“It’s like if I take a dollar from you, and then I say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take the dollar from you,’” says Chow. “But I haven’t given it back to you. When I say ‘I’m sorry,’ does that mean anything to you?”
“I can’t stop until everything’s [been] done properly and the redress is complete,” added Chow. “Otherwise I will not rest. I will continue to lobby the government.”
The Coalition, which was formed in 2005 has a membership of oer 4,000 carried over from the CCNC. The organization strives to get compensation for the Chinese families who had to pay the head tax. But it’s more than just money they are looking for.
“If we ask for total compensation, the government will never have enough money to pay for that. It’s astronomical,” says Chow. “What we’re asking for is for something symbolic – something meaningful.”
CCNC and the Coalition provide registration for head tax payers and spouses and their descendants for free across the country. Chow makes frequent trips to Ottawa, on his own tab, to negotiate with parliamentarians like Jason Kenney, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, and Beverley Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage.
“This surpasses any other job I’ve ever had,” says Chow. “It’s just the principle.”