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The long shadow of Canada's Chinese head tax

The long shadow of Canada's Chinese head tax

The legacy of the Chinese head tax continues to be a hot button topic in Canadian politics

Just the Basics

  • Implemented in 1885, the Chinese head tax discriminated against Chinese immigrants, preventing many from establishing normal family lives

  • The head tax and Chinese Exclusion Act (1923-1947) were two of over 100 anti-Chinese laws enacted by Canada; no other group was so thoroughly officially discriminated against

  • The decades-long fight for an official apology and redress reached its apex in 2006, yet the legacy of the head tax continues to cast a long shadow of Canadian politics

As the last spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway on November 7th 1885, the first nail in the coffin of the dreams of Chinese labourers was also hammered home. The creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway could not have been realized without the hard work and sacrifice of some 17,000 Chinese labourers working in harsh conditions and meagre pay. Despite the key role played by Chinese labour, Canadian authorities quickly implemented a series of discriminatory reforms soon after the completion of the railroad, in order to prevent Chinese immigration and family reunification. The impact of this legislation is still felt today, and the legacy of the Chinese head tax continues to be a hot button topic in Canadian politics.

The introduction of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 came about following calls to curtail Chinese immigration, especially after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald had even acknowledged the necessity of employing Chinese labourers, although his government was swayed by the public’s strong anti-Chinese sentiment to implement prejudicial legislation. Interestingly, while the Royal Commission established to look into this matter only gathered testimonies from two Chinese (out of a total of fifty-one), the commissioners cited little evidence to support the negative claims about Chinese immigrants, arguing instead that Chinese immigration would benefit British Columbia’s development. A $10 fee was initially proposed to pay for disease control among new arrivals and to fund a joint tribunal to closely monitor the lives of Chinese in Canada.

The Chinese became the first group in Canada to be excluded from immigration based solely on their ethnic origins, with a $50 head tax implemented in 1885 designed as a means to dissuade further immigration. The tax was later increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 ($11,358 in 2019 dollars if paid in 1914) in 1903, the equivalent to two years wages. For instance, Chinese labourers working on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway were only paid around a dollar a day, which after basic expenses left almost no money to save for the future. The original $50 fee was designed to be financially burdensome, as a Chinese labourer’s annual earnings amounted on average to around $300, or only $43 after expenses.  Many Chinese coming to Canada were forced to borrow money to pay the head tax, and then to spend years on a subsistence income paying off this loan; a financial burden which severely stunted their efforts to build a new life in Canada.

The lure of ‘Gold Mountain’

Despite these restrictions and the comparatively low pay, thousands of impoverished Chinese continued to see Canada as a land of opportunity, with Canada quickly earning the nickname ‘Gold Mountain’ - a reference to the supposed opportunities for a better life, as well as a nod to what spurred the first wave of Chinese immigration to Canada, namely the 1858 gold rush. The head tax did not manage to halt Chinese immigration to Canada, with the Chinese population growing from 4,383 in 1881 to 39,587 in 1921. Overall, some 97,000 Chinese immigrants came to Canada between 1885-1923, paying $23 million in head tax fees (roughly $550 million in 2019 dollars). “My father and grandfather each paid the $500 head tax,” community activist William Ging Wee Dere told CBC in 2017, “and in my father’s case, he was also locked in a detention centre for three weeks before being allowed into Canada. His ‘Chineseness’ was amplified by Canadian society and its oppressive laws directed at his ethnicity. He was so aware of his identity, he explained away the difficulties in Canada by saying, ‘It's because we are Chinese.’”

Anti-Chinese legislation also led to new developments in population tracking. The implementation of Chinese Immigration 9 (CI9) forms in 1910 was the first mass use of identification photography in Canada, predating passport photos. CI9 forms acted as a kind of pseudo-passport, vouching that the carrier had paid the head tax and thus permitting their re-entry into Canada while maintaining their non-citizen status. Lily Cho, the chair of the English department at York University launched Mass Capture in December 2017, a digitized collection of head tax certificates and other documentation pertaining to Chinese in Canada. Speaking on the CI9 forms -which contain nineteen different columns of information - Cho notes that “the certificates show how the making of non-citizens is a laboured, dynamic and active process of discrimination that is constantly being refined. They also mark a major shift in the state’s approach to tracking non-citizens.”

By 1923, Canadian authorities decided a harsher method was required, with Ottawa implementing the Chinese Exclusion Act. Canada’s decision to impose a ban on Chinese immigration drew inspiration from similar legislation enacted in the United States (1882), New Zealand (1881) and Victoria, Australia (1855). Upon studying these laws, Canadian legislators had initially opted against exclusion back in 1885, proposing the head tax instead, yet by 1923 opinions had changed and Canada implemented a ban on Chinese immigration that lasted until 1947.

Many past stances regarding different nationalities and ethnicities strike modern Canadians as abhorrent, and the passage of time has not been kind to many, once commonplace, sentiments; yet even by the standards of the time, Canadian anti-Chinese legislation was exceptional. In 1908, Chinese students lost their exemption from the head tax, and by 1917 police were given extraordinary powers to arrest Chinese in Canada at will if they were suspected of being in the country illegally. Ships carrying Chinese immigrants were also limited to only one immigrant per fifty tons of ship tonnage, compared to the ratio of one European immigrant per two tons.

Overall, more than a hundred anti-Chinese laws were implemented, which among other things saw Chinese; denied the vote, forbidden to own crown land, practice law or medicine, hold public office or seek employment on public works. Until the late 1940s, Chinese were not allowed to swim in the same pools as whites, and were segregated in movie theatres. Montrealer, Simon Wing explains that “before my father bought his house in Cartierville (a working-class suburb of Montreal) he went to see all the neighbours to ask if they had any objections to a Chinese family moving in.”

Chinese-Canadian soldiers from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who served with the South East Asia Command (SEAC), awaiting repatriation to Canada, No.1 Repatriation Depot (Canadian Army Miscellaneous Units), Tweedsmuir Camp, Thursley, England, 27 November 1945 | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Despite these restrictions, around 300 Chinese living in Canada volunteered to fight in the First World War, with this number doubling during the Second World War, although the armed forces were hesitant to grant officer commissions to Chinese as it upset the racial hierarchy, as non-white officers would be giving orders to white men. The actions of Chinese veterans during the war played a major role in convincing the Canadian political establishment to grant Chinese-Canadians full rights in 1947, albeit against the wishes of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. For instance, WWII veteran Douglas Jung became the first Chinese-Canadian MP following his 1958 election win in Vancouver Centre. 1947 also saw the end of the Exclusion Act, (anti-Chinese legislation adopted by Newfoundland in 1906 was still in effect when it joined Canada in 1949) although Chinese immigration was still difficult until Canada’s immigration reforms and the introduction of the points-system in the 1960s.

Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act inflicted generational damage

The impact of Chinese immigration restrictions was keenly felt at the family level, as very few Chinese could afford to bring their families with them to Canada prior to the Exclusion Act, resulting in the creation of a bachelor society with a male-to-female ratio of 28:1 by 1911, a higher imbalance than any other ethnic group in Canada until the end of WWII. A lack of funds and strict controls on who could immigrate resulted in many Chinese men working in Canada having to forgo starting a family. Canada’s Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg documents this trend through the story of Dr. Henry Wu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia whose grandfather came to Canada in 1923.

Referencing the legions of lonely Chinese bachelors, Wu recalls episodes from his childhood when his grandfather would take him on long walks through Vancouver’s Chinatown. “[The prevention of a normal family life for so many Chinese] explains his showing me off to all those other elderly men gathered at these cafes in Chinatown.” Wu remembers the various gentlemen heartily congratulating his grandfather on having been able to start a family. “It explains why my grandfather having me here was like an explosion of joy [for these old men] because the Exclusion Act basically made it impossible for many of them to marry someone and have kids [...] and grand-kids. Many of them would die alone, literally growing old alone except for those other men in these cafes.”

For anyone wanting to start a family they were forced to return to China for brief periods to marry and have children, not knowing if they would ever be able to live together as a family in Canada. For instance, Wu’s grandfather only met his daughter in 1965 when she finally came to Canada as an immigrant. Similarly, Newfoundland activist Gordon Jin tells how his father immigrated to the island in 1931 at the age of sixteen, but only reunited with his wife twenty-four years later in 1955. When the oldest member of the Chinese-Canadian community, Ralph Kung Kee Lee, died in 2007 at the age of 107, the CBC reported how he had to spend five years working as a dishwasher to pay off his head tax. Moreover due to the Exclusion Act Lee could not bring his wife and son to Canada; by the time the act was lifted his son had already died in the Second World War.

This lack of normal family relations severely hamstrung the development of the Chinese-Canadian community, and the effects of the head tax and the Exclusion Act continue to be relevant to this day. In the decades following the repeal of the Exclusion Act, there developed increasing momentum for an official apology from the Canadian government as well as demands for reparations. In 1983, head tax payers Dak Leon Mark and Shack Lee asked their local MP for a $500 tax refund, but were denied. The 1988 Japanese-Canadian Redress Agreement (for losses and injustices suffered during WWII) initiated under the Mulroney government galvanized Chinese-Canadians seeking similar closure. While the Mulroney government stopped short of an official policy it did suggest the idea of a symbolic payment to formerly discriminated communities, but Italian, Ukrainian and Chinese-Canadian organizations all rejected the proposal.


Both the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC) have been active in calling on the Canadian government to redress the legacy of the head tax. Efforts to elicit an apology from Ottawa were rebuffed by the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, both of which followed a strict ‘No Apology, No Compensation’ policy. To further complicate matters, the CCNC and NCCC were pursuing different objectives: the former sought an apology and funds for an educational foundation, while the latter campaigned for parliamentary acknowledgement, an apology and symbolic financial redress for the 4,000 head tax spouses and children who had registered with the lobby.

The Chinese head tax becomes an election issue

With little hope of a breakthrough at the political level, Chinese head tax activists turned to the courts, notably in the 2002 case Mack v. Attorney General of Canada. The 4,000 person class action lawsuit was submitted by head tax payer Shack Jang Mack as well as Quen Ying Lee and Yew Lee, the widow and son of a head tax payer. The claimants sought $1.2 billion in damages to tax payers and their descendants for the head tax, resultant stigma and family trauma. 

Unfortunately for head tax campaigners, the Ontario Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had no legal or constitutional obligation to offer repayment, as the events in question occurred before the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which could not be enforced retroactively. Moreover, the court maintained that the compensation awarded to Japanese-Canadians for property losses and hardships during the Second World War did not constitute a precedent legitimizing other reparations efforts.

Chinese-Canadian counsel, Avvy Go recalls her outrage during the proceedings on June 10th, 2002 after comments made by Justice James Mcpherson dismissed the position of the claimants. “The Chinese head tax payers,” Macpherson argued “were happy to be here [in Canada] and had already received redress through their ability to remain in Canada [...] The fact that the head tax payers and their descendants are still here is redress enough [...] Paying the head tax is made all worthwhile when one can see their granddaughter playing first string cello for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.”

Chinese-Canadian organizations launched an official complaint concerning Mcpherson’s comments, and Go notes that the propagation of the “happy immigrant” stereotype only harms efforts by historically marginalized groups for redress.

“The notion of the model minority, that is so often applied to Asian Canadians in general and Chinese-Canadians in particular [was] effectively used by the judge as [a] reason for disputing any Government’s obligation to redress past wrongs. Because Chinese Canadian immigrants are doing well today, so the argument goes, therefore any wrongs that have been committed against them in the past can and should be forgiven.”

Despite their defeat in court, Chinese-Canadian groups continued to push for official redress during the early 2000s. In 2003, head tax activists took the famous ‘Last Spike’ from the Canadian Pacific Railroad on an eleven city, cross-country tour as tangible proof of the contribution of Chinese-Canadians to Canada. Activists also lodged a complaint with the United Nations concerning Ottawa’s refusal to apologize for the head tax. As a result, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Dìene, rebuked Canada in an official address in 2004. The head tax documentary, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, by Karen Cho was also widely shown on CBC in 2004.

In the run-up to the 2006 election, the head tax became an election issue, with MP Inky Mark proposing Bill C-333, a piece of legislation expressing sorrow for the head tax. The bill opened negotiations with the NCCC, but one shortcoming was that the CCNC was excluded from the proceedings. Ultimately, the Liberal government was dissolved in 2005 before C-333 could become law, although the head tax went on to be an important election issue in 2006. Prime Minister Paul Martin even expressed a personal apology on Fairchild Radio’s Chinese language programming, despite his government’s hitherto stonewalling of the issue. While Chinese-Canadian groups viewed the apology as a step in the right direction, it nevertheless did not constitute an official parliamentary apology, something which the Liberals continued to refuse. In response, the New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois and Conservative Party all announced their support for an apology and redress.

Following his 2006 election, Stephen Harper made a formal apology for Ottawa’s head tax practices on June 22nd, 2006. The Harper government also announced a symbolic payment of $20,000 to head tax payers. Ottawa also set aside $24 million for a community historical recognition program, as well as $10 million for a national program to educate Canadians about the head tax. While the apology was widely welcomed by the Chinese-Canadian community, not all head tax campaigners were satisfied with the government’s compensation arrangement, as less than thirty surviving head tax payers were alive in 2006 to claim their cheques. Moreover, the hundreds of widows and children of head tax payers did not receive any compensation from the government, despite also having endured hardship. Conversely, other Chinese-Canadians groups had been against any reparation payments to begin with, so all sides found certain parts of the deal unsatisfactory.

The head tax issue did not disappear after Harper’s 2006 apology, as various other levels of government followed Ottawa’s lead. On the one year anniversary of the official parliamentary apology, Ontario designated June 22nd as Chinese-Canadian Head Tax Redress Day, with the city of Vancouver also implementing a municipal day of commemoration. The head tax once again became a provincial election issue for British Columbia in 2013 after an all-party apology for the head tax collapsed in March of that year following the so-called Ethnicgate scandal which dogged the incumbent Liberal government of Premier Christy Clark.

The Ethnicgate scandal undermined cross-partisan efforts at an official provincial apology for the head tax after Liberal party memos were leaked encouraging public apologies to ethnic communities as an easy way to get votes. The scandal over ethnic voter outreach efforts saw the Liberal government heavily advertise the apology in the Chinese-Canadian community in particular, rather than to the provincial population as a whole. This was witnessed by the apology’s extensive coverage by Chinese media outlets, while being treated as a non-issue by the mainstream media.

Due to this fallout, the B.C government decided to offer a second apology for the head tax in 2014, as the first had been marred by cynical political machinations. Victor Ho, editor-in-chief of the Sing Tao Daily, B.C Edition, wrote at the time that “in response to the ‘Three Nos” graciously suggested by the Chinese community: no compensation [from the province], no penalizing of perpetrators, and no endless exaggeration of claims; the provincial government should not re-victimize that community by misplacing the spotlight on politicians or making partisan gains from its apology to that painful Chinese history.” The B.C government would go on to include the history and legacy of the Chinese head tax as part of the provincial education curriculum starting from Grade 5, as of 2016. 

The Bottom Line

The implementation of the Chinese head tax is a shameful part of Canadian history, especially since it is closely tied to one of the grand projects - the Canadian Pacific Railroad - that helped unite Canada into the country that it is today. The immigration restrictions imposed on Chinese in Canada, and the subsequent slew of anti-Chinese legislation that followed is unparalleled in scope in Canadian history. No other immigrant group was as strictly curtailed and harassed as Chinese between 1885 and the reform of Canada’s immigration system in the 1960s.

Even after the end of official discrimination, the damage to community and familial ties posed a significant hindrance to the foundation of the Chinese-Canadian community for decades. The children of head tax payers and those who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act continue to represent a tangible link to that era of Canadian history, as well as a visible reminder of the pain Ottawa’s actions inflicted. Consequently, Chinese-Canadian activists began a decades-long campaign for an official apology and redress, which despite several set backs, finally achieved its goal in June 2006, when PM Stephen Harper apologizes on behalf of the Canadian government.

That being said, the Chinese head tax has not been relegated to the dustbin of history, as not everyone was satisfied with the 2006 settlement, and subsequent apologies - notably by the B.C government - have caused the head tax to remain an important political issue. The Ethnicgate scandal that marred the premiership of Christy Clark demonstrates the need to tact and empathy: an apology should not be taxing for the recipient.

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