A federal Conservative MP has introduced a private member's bill offering an apology for a racist head tax and for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which banned Chinese immigration to Canada between 1923 and 1947. However, a Vancouver head-tax payer, the grandson of a head-tax payer, and a human-rights advocate have all criticized the bill.
On November 15, Bev Oda, a Conservative MP from Ontario, reintroduced Bill C-333, the Chinese Canadian Recognition and Redress Act, which had earlier been submitted by Conservative Manitoba MP Inky Mark. It calls upon Parliament to recognize and honour the contribution of Chinese immigrants, particularly in the construction of Canada's railways, and acknowledge the unjust treatment of Chinese Canadians as a result of racist legislation.
Beginning in 1885, Chinese immigrants had to pay a $50 head tax to come to Canada. This rose to $500 in 1903, which remained until Chinese immigration was banned in 1923.
Oda's bill calls upon the federal government to negotiate an agreement for redress with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, which shall consist of an educational foundation and other educational projects.
Charlie Quan, a 97-year-old Vancouver head-tax payer, told the Straight that he doesn't agree with the bill. "The apology is nothing at all," he said in a phone interview after being interrupted during a game of mahjong in Chinatown. "I don't want to accept that."
Sid Tan, a human-rights activist and Vancouver director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, told the Straight that Quan's head-tax certificate is dated August 1, 1923, whereas the Chinese Exclusion Act took effect a month earlier. Tan noted that after factoring in inflation, a $500 head tax would be the equivalent of approximately $30,000 in 2004 dollars.
Tan, whose deceased grandfather was also a head-tax payer, described Oda's bill as a "stinker" because there is no mention of any refund of the head tax for Quan and the descendants of other head-tax payers.
"The Conservative Party is playing politics with Chinese head-tax and Exclusion Act redress," Tan claimed. "How dare they ask the Canadian government to negotiate an agreement concerning human rights with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, which is so cozy with the Government of the People's Republic of China?"
The former chief commissioner of the now-defunct British Columbia Human Rights Commission, Mary-Woo Sims, told the Straight that she disagrees with any legislation that specifies an organization to speak on behalf of the community. "I think if the government is serious about negotiating redress, whether it's in the past with Japanese Canadians or now with Chinese Canadians, they ought to develop a process whereby the community identifies who the legitimate agents for that negotiation should be," Sims said. "How does the government know that this is an organization that can legitimately speak on behalf of head-tax payers and their descendants or the Chinese Canadian community?"
Former Vancouver NPA city councillor Don Lee is a cofounder and director of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians and the son of a deceased head-tax payer. Lee faxed the Straight a copy of an NCCC petition calling upon the federal government to establish an endowment fund to take care of survivors and promote racial harmony. Lee said that the Conservatives never contacted his organization before presenting the private member's bill, which included many of the points listed in the NCCC petition.
"Our stand is not to ask for individual compensation," Lee told the Straight. "We would like the federal government to set up funding for the Chinese ethnic groups."
He acknowledged that some people see head-tax payers as victims, but he disagrees with this interpretation. Lee said his father had the "foresight" to pay the head tax and suffer the economic consequences, because it provided tremendous benefits to his descendants. "I feel he is not a victim," Lee said. "He is actually benefiting the future generations: myself, my sons, my grandsons, so on and so forth."
Tan said he recently met with Richmond Liberal MP Raymond Chan, the Minister of State for Multiculturalism, to discuss the head-tax issue. "I'm quite hopeful," Tan said. "I don't think we've ever had a friend at the cabinet table like Raymond Chan to move it ahead."
Neither Chan nor Oda returned the Straight's calls by deadline.
On Sunday (November 21), the National Film Board and the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians will present the Vancouver premiere of Karen Cho's film In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, which tells the story of Quan and other head-tax payers. It will be shown at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova Street) at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.