Most head-tax families haven't gotten a penny

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More than 23 years ago, a Vancouver East NDP Member of Parliament stood in the House of Commons to demand redress for Chinese head-tax payers. Margaret Mitchell was the first to bring this issue forward, and it took more than two decades and several governments before an apology was made, in 2006.

Now 82 and long since retired, Mitchell remains passionate about making amends to Canadians of Chinese origin who suffered under discriminatory immigration policies. The former MP believes that the redress laid out by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government doesn't fully resolve the issue.

"There are so many aspects that are not settled," Mitchell told the Georgia Straight after she was awarded an honorary membership in the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, in Vancouver's Chinatown on November 25.

Only head-tax payers or their spouses who were alive as of February 6, 2006, are entitled to $20,000 in symbolic compensation. Mitchell said that this leaves out thousands of descendants of families who went through economic hardship and endured long separations.

The deadline for filing applications for payments is March 31, 2008.

"I fully support the fact that the battle must continue, and you must get coverage for inclusive redress for all the families," Mitchell said in her address.

Her audience included Charlie Quan, a 99-year-old head-tax payer, and Gim Wong, an elderly son of a head-tax payer who rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle across Canada in the summer of 2005 to raise awareness about the need for redress.

In an interview, Mitchell recalled that her advocacy started when two of her Vancouver East constituents–Mak Dak Lee and Shack Lee–asked for her help.

The 14-year MP recounts her experience in the head-tax redress campaign in her memoir, No Laughing Matter: Adventure, Activism and Politics (Granville Island Publishing), which will have its launch at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House on Monday (December 3).

In 1885, the Canadian government imposed a $50 entry fee on Chinese immigrants. This was raised to $100 in 1900, and to $500 in 1903. The head tax was ended in 1923 by a law that banned most Chinese immigration. According to the Chinese Canadian National Council, approximately 81,000 Chinese paid $23 million in head taxes–about $1.2 billion in current dollars.

Sid Chow Tan, cochair of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, said the redress covers less than one percent of head-tax families because the vast majority of payers and their spouses have already died. "Head-tax families have endured, overcome, and outlived generations of arrogant and dismissive governments," he said on November 25. "We have built a movement to outlast the Stephen Harper Conservative government should they continue to close the door on us."

Victor Wong's grandfather paid the tax in 1912, but because his grandfather and grandmother are dead, Wong's family is not entitled to the symbolic compensation. More than 500 head-tax payers and surviving spouses have received payments, according to Wong, who is the Chinese Canadian National Council's executive director.

Wendy Yuan, the federal Liberal candidate for Vancouver Kingsway, told the Straight that her husband's grandfather was a head-tax payer. The Yuan family has preserved the late patriarch's certificate of payment, she said. "I've been telling my son about how it was not easy for our ancestors," Yuan said. "For sure, the head-tax descendants need redress."

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