Victor Wong and Sid Chow Tan: Seeking a just and honourable redress
The B.C. Liberals' Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan was controversial for its blunt language, cynical approach to community engagement, and misuse of public services for partisan objectives. The Chinese Canadian National Council and the Head Tax Families of Canada expressed our disappointment with the outreach plan and the language around "quick wins", and we accepted Premier Christy Clark's apology.
We welcomed the probe by deputy minister John Dyble which concluded that while the outreach plan was not fully implemented, there was a misuse of public resources and an attempt to hide the activities through personal email communication. There were also complaints from community-based groups and some staff transferred government and private information to personal email accounts, presumably for partisan purposes.
The Dyble report also observed that the activities to achieve an apology for the Head Tax had been "underway for a number of years" and was an "appropriate use of government resources".
The CCNC and HTFSC have sought a meaningful B.C. apology since 2006 when we wrote to then-attorney general Wally Oppal and subsequently to the B.C. Ombudsman.
It was B.C. politicians who lobbied for the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act and enacted a litany of anti-Chinese legislation. The federal government collected $23 million in head-tax levies from 1885 to 1923 and transferred an estimated $8.5 million to B.C. This unjust enrichment of the B.C. treasury must be reversed and these monies must be returned to the families who paid it.
B.C. must not be seen to be profiting from racism—it would be harmful to our image at home and overseas. During the 2009 B.C. election, we issued a questionnaire to all four political parties and the most promising response came from the B.C. Green party. In April 2011, we met with MLA Richard Lee to present a framework for redress. In May 2012 and early February 2013, the CCNC and HTFSC rejected overtures of a stand-alone apology from the B.C. government.
The federal apology in 2006 was supported by all four federal parties and accepted by some of the head-tax families. The federal apology offered a partial redress, which included direct redress to 785 living head-tax payers and surviving spouses, and a community education fund.
An estimated 3,000 head-tax families—in which the head-tax payer and spouse had passed away—were excluded and did not receive any direct redress, yet these families had the same experience. We are proposing that B.C. return the head-tax monies to these families in order to achieve a complete redress.
The CCNC and HTFSC understand that there may be different views on redress. However we express our disappointment with the individuals and community groups who have supported a stand-alone apology. There were rumours in mid-February that the B.C. government was mobilizing community representatives and party supporters to accept an apology motion in the B.C. Legislature on March 14, the last sitting day of the legislature.
We submit that had the outreach plan not been made public, these community representatives would have been seen as validating the government's "quick win" strategy. It should also be instructive to all political parties that these validators were nowhere to be found during this controversy because they and their families were not directly affected by the past racist legislation. Redress cannot be genuinely achieved without the acceptance of all of the affected families.
We also understand that some community groups have suggested some community-based and collective measures. These suggestions include improving the education curriculum and protecting heritage sites. We would encourage groups to contact the relevant ministries as these suggested actions are not contingent on an apology.
In fact, the B.C. education system already includes some instruction on B.C.'s racist past with teachers utilizing Asian Heritage Month and the numerous community education resources to teach B.C. history.
A complete redress is the foundational lesson and sets in place the healing and reconciliation process, which will take years if not decades to ferment. A just and honourable redress is restorative, especially for the direct victims and affected families. he CCNC and HTFSC will continue to lobby the B.C. government to do the right thing and to negotiate a meaningful apology.
Victor Wong is executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council. Sid Chow Tan is president of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada.