The enduring legacy of Canada’s racist head tax on Chinese-Canadians

A good mixture of the personal and general history regarding the head tax and other forms of discrimination and a reminder that the activists, so necessary for government action, remain somewhat dissatisfied with final result.

(I signed off on many of the individual head tax claims for the ex gratia payment and extensive ATIP requests, as well as being responsible for the related historical recognition programs that provided funding for community initiatives to tell these stories to Canadians):

On June 22, 2006, Stephen Harper formally apologized for the head tax of up to $500 levied on 81,000 Chinese immigrants to Canada from 1883 until it was repealed in 1923—when the Chinese Exclusion Act came into law, preventing Chinese people from moving to the country until 1947. William Ging Wee Dere, whose father and grandfather paid the tax, successfully campaigned to redress those measures: Ottawa has apologized and paid $20,000 in compensation to surviving head tax payers and the spouses of deceased ones.

Retired railroad engineer Dere, 70, was born in Taishan, China in 1948 and immigrated to Canada in 1956 with his mother, growing up in the back of his father’s hand-laundry business in Verdun, Que. He learned of his family’s struggles only after his father died in 1966 and his mother gave him a cookie tin containing his dad’s documents, including a head tax certificate. In 1993, he released the documentary Moving the Mountain to draw awareness to the head tax’s racist legacy and the campaign to redress it. In Being Chinese in Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress and Belonging, Dere chronicles the hardships suffered by his grandfather and father, who worked as immigrants in Quebec in the 1920s, the head tax redress campaign and how those experiences shaped his own identity.

Q: You’ve talked about how it’s been a struggle to make people aware of the head tax and the history of Chinese-Canadians. Why do you think there isn’t more awareness around it?

A: I think that is a direct legacy of the head tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act, because our community is very disjointed. It never developed normally because of the separation of families and the exclusion of Chinese from Canada for three decades. Many don’t know the foundation of Chinese-Canadian history—how they lived, how they came and how they struggled and survived here in Canada.

Q: I’m second-generation Chinese-Canadian. My mom immigrated from Hong Kong in 1976, so she was never directly impacted by the head tax. Her group of immigrants and the waves and generations that have come after, like my own, don’t really have much understanding of, or sympathy for, this history.

A: I don’t see too much passion in the young people these days because they’re two, three generations removed from what happened. Maybe they don’t have an organic connection to the past. But I explain to them that that legacy still continues because of the lack of services and the struggle that we’re going through today in terms of getting equality in housing, in finding jobs, especially the recent immigrants who are now coming from China. They’re professionals in order for them to get through the point system to get into Canada. But once they arrive here, they can’t get jobs in their professions and they end up working in factories and sweatshops.

Q: In trying to appeal to younger generations of Chinese-Canadians, how do you make these events that happened so many years ago seem relevant today?

A: On a personal basis, it’s a question of knowing who you are. Do you have an identity awareness or an identity consciousness? If you do, then it’s the first step in standing up for what you are. It’s been a lifelong curse to feel comfortable with my identity. I think if young people come across discrimination, or somebody calls them a name on the street and they feel hurt, they have to understand why. As a person of colour, we will inevitably come across racism because we live in a dominant white society. The burden of fighting against racism is on the shoulders of racialized minorities in Canada and Quebec.

Q: What was life like for your father and grandfather working in Quebec in the 1920s?

A: The only work that they could do was laundry work. They were excluded socially and economically from the larger society. It was a hand laundry—you did everything by hand—so it was a very self-reliant economy. You work hard, you make some money and you’re able to eat and feed your family back in China. My grandfather came to Vancouver in 1909 and first started in the laundry business with a partner. And then he moved to Montreal around 1920. My father and my grandfather worked together for about 30 years. Once they saved enough money, they would take a trip back to China. And that’s when the children would be born. According to the law, they couldn’t stay more than two years in China; otherwise, they would lose their right to return to Canada. The Chinese [in Canada] were non-citizens and they didn’t have the right to vote. Essentially they didn’t have any civil rights in Canada whatsoever. It was only after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947 that my father got his citizenship and moved the rest of his family to Canada in 1950.

Q: Why do you think the movement and redress took so long?

A: It took 22 years—it was a generational struggle. It took so long because the Canadian government was intransigent in their attitude and approach towards redress. We started off with Pierre Trudeau. Margaret Mitchell [then minister of multiculturalism and citizenship] sent a letter asking for repayment of the head tax. [Trudeau] ignored the situation. Then we went through Brian Mulroney, who did quite well for the Japanese—he redressed the Japanese internment, but he was unable to overcome bureaucracy to redress the Chinese, Ukrainians, the Jewish and others who were affected by exclusionary practices of the government. After Mulroney, it was Chrétien, and he formed this policy of “no apology, no compensation.” For 10 years, the government refused to talk with us. Then you have [Paul] Martin, who carried on this policy of “no talk, no redress, no compensation.” It was only until Harper, who saw an advantage in redressing and apologizing for the Chinese Head Tax, that [an apology was made] in 2006. In the beginning, we were all naive. We thought that if we explained the case, they would do the right thing because it was such an obvious case of injustice and discrimination. But, of course, the government has no heart. You can’t appeal to a government’s emotions…So we started to organize a lot deeper in the community, organizing large meetings, demonstrations in Parliament and so on.

Q: You were at the redress ceremony, but you almost didn’t go. Is that right?

A: Yes, because the government never told us what they were going to do, other than saying that they would apologize. We were sending letters and submissions to the government to try and get a meeting to negotiate a settlement. So it wasn’t a redress settlement, it was a redress pronouncement on the part of the government. They controlled everything, so we had no input into what the redress should be. We didn’t want to encourage people to go because we were afraid that people would just go for photo op and give Harper all this credit for partial redress. [At the time] my mother had suffered from a stroke. So I discussed it with my siblings and we thought that we should go to represent our mother. My sister and myself, we went.

Q: I guess it was bittersweet, because there still hasn’t been any resolution for the descendants of head tax payers.

A: Yes, for instance, my sister—she was glad for redress for our mother, but her husband’s parents had passed away, so her husband’s family would get nothing. It was bittersweet in that sense.

Q: In your book you have a quote from [journalist] Ray Yao criticizing the descendants for campaigning for full redress from the perspective of less-privileged Chinese immigrants “working 10 hours a day in a noodle shop making minimum wage: you are a lawyer and driving a bloody SUV, and then you want your $20,000? You didn’t suffer, your grandparents suffered and you reap the benefit?” Do you think there’s some truth to that?

A: Many of the leadership in our movement were lawyers in Toronto. So he took a swipe at these people who were calling for full redress.

Q: There is this stereotype of Chinese-Canadians today being doctors, lawyers—an accomplished “model minority.” I wonder whether that makes it difficult to elicit the sympathy from non-Chinese Canadians for this past suffering.

A: Not all the immigrants who come here are part of the model minority. The model minority is a false concept that people like to paint—the stereotype of the Chinese being well-educated and being professionals. But like other members of Canadian society, in the Chinese community there’s a class structure. Not everybody attains that top echelon in society.

Source: The enduring legacy of Canada’s racist head tax on Chinese-Canadians

Quen Chow Lee, lead plaintiff in lawsuit over Chinese head tax, dies at 105

Good story about her life and activism, not to mention the role activism plays in shifting positions:

Quen Chow Lee, one of three immigrant litigants who led a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa over its discriminatory Chinese head tax, has died. She was 105.

Born in China in October 18, 1911, Lee was nicknamed “Nooey Quen” — meaning women’s rights in English.

Her toughness helped her overcome war, poverty, a 14-year separation from her husband, and the drawn-out legal battle for government redress, said her son Yew Lee.

“She was a tough lady, determined, committed and stubborn, someone who had a strong sense of justice,” said Lee. “Yet, she was a very loving mother and grandmother.”

A native of Taishan, Chow Lee married to Guang Foo Lee in 1930, when he returned to China from Canada to find a wife. He was born in 1892, also in Taishan, and paid a $500 head tax in 1913 to come to Canada.

After the marriage, Lee only stayed two years in China because Canadian laws then made Chinese people pay another $500 head tax if they were out of the country for too long. He left behind his wife, pregnant with a third child, and two kids.

Between 1885 and 1923, the Canadian government collected a total of $23 million from some 81,000 people under the various forms of the Chinese Immigration Act.

Because of the Second World War and the civil war in China, Chow Lee and her children lost touch with her husband for almost 14 years.

Chow Lee raised the children on her own until after the repeal in 1947 of the Chinese Immigration Act, which had effectively banned Chinese immigration to Canada for more than two decades. Although Chinese wives could now join their husbands in Canada, most had to wait patiently before the family saved enough money for the fares.

“I’ve endured so many years of hardship. We had no money and nothing to eat,” Chow Lee said in the 2004 documentary, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, by Karen Cho. “Some women remarried farmers from faraway just to survive . . . but I didn’t want to because of my children.”

Chow Lee arrived in Canada with her three children after Christmas in 1950 and settled in Sudbury, Ont. where the family ran a number of restaurants: the Capitol Café, the Star Restaurant, the China House Restaurant, the Empress Tavern and Lee’s Palace.

After her husband passed away in 1967, Chow Lee once again was left to raise her children on her own — now five of them, with the two youngest ones born in Canada.

Growing up, Yew Lee said his mother would pull out a piece of paper from a leather-and-brass box and just looked at it. It was his father’s head tax certificate.

“She kept it in a steamer trunk above the restaurant. She would pull it out many many times. We knew something was wrong and the paper was significant,” Yew Lee recalled. “She always felt the injustice had to be righted.”

Chow Lee was already retired in her late 80s when the family got in touch with the Chinese Canadian National Council, which had spearheaded the redress campaign. She immediately volunteered to be one of the lead claimants of the class-action lawsuit representing the head-tax-payers’ widows.

Chow Lee would travel in her wheelchair to fundraising events and rallies between Toronto and Ottawa to raise public awareness about Canada’s racist past against the Chinese.

“We approached many head-tax-payers and families to sue the government, but many turned down because they were ashamed of it and didn’t want to talk about it. But Mrs. Lee needed no convincing,” said Avvy Go, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit. “She was a true inspiration for all of us.”

Although the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed and subsequent appeals were denied, it set into motion talks with the government that ended in an official apology at the House of Commons on June 22, 2006.

Chow Lee was in the audience when then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized in Cantonese to the Chinese-Canadian community.

“Even though we didn’t win the lawsuit, Mrs. Lee never gave up hope. She never had any regret,” said Go. “She used her suffering to propel her to fight injustice and challenge the government head on for its treatment of the Chinese. She was a model not only for the Chinese, but all Canadians.”

Source: Quen Chow Lee, lead plaintiff in lawsuit over Chinese head tax, dies at 105 | Toronto Star