Head tax unites activists

On the eve of Chinese New Year, local Chinese Canadian human-rights activists have another reason to celebrate: over the past year, an alliance formed between some first-generation Chinese activists and Canadian-born Chinese-head-tax descendants. According to several people contacted by the Georgia Straight, this culminated in an impressive demonstration of the community's political influence during the recent federal election campaign.

The Chinese Canadian National Council has traditionally been the leading community organization pressing for redress for Chinese head-tax payers and their descendants. Last November, the federal Liberal government announced an "agreement in principle" to set aside $2.5 million for education programs concerning the discriminatory head tax. In 1904, the Canadian government imposed a $500 tax on Chinese immigrants and nobody else. In 1923, Ottawa prohibited new Chinese settlement in Canada, only lifting the ban in 1947.

The Minister of State for Multiculturalism, Raymond Chan, refused to bring the CCNC into the negotiations, refused to issue an apology, and refused to accede to the CCNC's demand for direct compensation. His decision flowed out of a Conservative private member's bill that included an apology but that also promised to set aside all money for a rival group, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, which has not pressed for individual compensation.

The times they are a-changin'

> The year Canada's census recorded that a majority of the Greater Vancouver Regional District's population lived outside the city of Vancouver: 1961

> The year that Canada's census recorded that a majority of the GVRD's Chinese Canadian population lived outside the city of Vancouver: 2001

> Chinese Canadian population in the GVRD in 2001: 312,180

> Number of GVRD residents who described themselves as entirely or part Chinese in 2001: 348,000

> Chinese Canadian population of the GVRD in 1991: 167,420

> Chinese Canadian population of the GVRD in 1981: 84,000

> Percentage of Chinese Canadians in the GVRD in 2001 who were born in Canada: 20

> Percentage of Chinese Canadians in the GVRD in 2001 who were born in Hong Kong: 25

> Percentage of Chinese Canadians in the GVRD in 2001 born in "eastern and southeastern Asia", including Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia: 24

> Percentage of the GVRD's Canadian-born Chinese population that is under the age of 20: 60

Sources: 2001 Canadian Census, Statistics Canada's 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey, and Andrew Yan, a research associate with the SFU Institute of Governance Studies

Many long-time head-tax activists, such as Vancouver resident Sid Tan, CCNC executive director Victor Wong, and local architect David Wong, immediately denounced the federal Liberal initiative. Tan, a community-media activist, told the Straight that the NCCC was created in the early 1990s to counter the CCNC's criticism of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

They were joined by Canadian-born head-tax descendant Todd Wong, veteran human-rights activist Mary-Woo Sims, and many others who had long been associated with this issue. For the first time, the head-tax activists also attracted the support of several first-generation Chinese human-rights activists who regularly comment in the local Chinese-speaking media.

David Wong told the Straight that this was a deliberate strategy to reach the immigrant Chinese, who vastly outnumber Canadian-born residents of Chinese descent in the region. Wong described politics as a "numbers game". He claimed that the more people who could be enlisted, the greater the odds that candidates would support them.

"I was actually just ecstatic when I saw people who could communicate and reach into that community, because we had great difficulty," Wong said.

Chinese-language media commentator Gabriel Yiu distributed articles in English and Chinese to local media and denounced Chan on CBC Radio. Bill Chu, a Cantonese-speaking local antigambling activist, became a spokesperson on the head tax in the Chinese-speaking media. Hanson Lau, a rabble-rousing former Chinese-language talk-show host, hosted a press conference. And Thekla Lit, a crusader for redress of victims of Japanese aggression in the Second World War, also joined the fray.

Lit told the Straight that the federal Liberal government's agreement in principle lacked three characteristics of a proper redress package: there were no serious negotiations with the descendants of head-tax payers; there was no compensation offered; and there was no apology.

"So when I see this, I find it totally unacceptable because of my own experience with redress movements," Lit said.

Chu told the Straight that the first e-mail he distributed described the Liberal government's move as "the biggest event since the Tiananmen massacre" to Chinese Canadians. "To me, it's about the dignity of the Chinese, and the shame they have suffered for so long," Chu said.

Chu and Lit said it was important to educate new Chinese Canadians about the history of the head tax, and put pressure on the federal Liberals to see the error of their ways. As the campaign progressed, even federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper stepped forward to support an official apology, though he was mum on the subject of direct compensation.

Andrew Yan, a local demographic researcher, told the Straight that the head tax has become a "bridging" issue between first-generation Chinese immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese, many of whose ancestors paid the $500 fee. Todd Wong, a fifth-generation Canadian, said he was especially pleased to see some Chinese-speaking immigrants, such as Chu and Lit, join the redress campaign.

"That's going to be the start of a new Chinese Canadian identity," Wong said.