Head Tax Becomes Hot-Button Election Issue

Rod Mickleburgh, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Dec. 14, 2005

VANCOUVER—Injustices from more than a century ago have emerged as a surprising election issue that could cloud the prospects of at least one Liberal cabinet minister, and possibly two.

At issue is how best to redress the racist government policy that exacted an expensive head tax from Chinese immigrants to Canada from 1885 to 1923 and then shut the door to all immigration from China until 1947.

Both Industry Minister David Emerson and Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan are seeking re-election in ridings with many Chinese-Canadian voters, and the federal government’s refusal to apologize and offer compensation for these long-ago policies is now a huge topic within the ethnic Chinese community.

“It’s all over the media,” Sid Tan, the grandson of a head-tax payer and a long-time advocate of compensation, said yesterday.

“Everyone in the community is talking about it. It seems to have a life of its own. I can’t quite believe it, after all these years.”

Mr. Tan said the controversy is going to hit Mr. Chan particularly hard, since he argued for compensation in the past but had changed his tune since joining the Liberal government.

But Mr. Tan predicted that Mr. Emerson’s election chances could also be hurt, with New Democrat rival Ian Waddell a strong supporter of financial redress and an apology to those who paid the $500 head tax.

Mr. Chan has been the main defender of an agreement with a number of Chinese-Canadian organizations to provide $2.5-million for programs acknowledging the racism of the past.

But the deal provides no apology and no compensation for any of the few surviving immigrants who paid the head tax, nor for any of their families.

“Wrongs have been done, and we are going to document the stories and make sure this never happens again,” said Mr. Chan, whose Richmond riding is more than 40 per cent ethnic Chinese.

“Every generation of Canadians has faced some sort of discrimination, historically. Are we going to compensate them all?

“I think the Chinese-Canadian community understands that the important part is the government’s acknowledgement that this was a racist policy,” he said.

Mr. Chan added that a formal apology would open up the possibility of class-action lawsuits against the government.

But last week, Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper thought the issue hot enough to overturn his party’s previous support of the Liberal position. Mr. Harper called on the government to apologize for “the terrible historical wrong” of the hated head tax.

He further promised to negotiate with all groups, including Mr. Tan’s Chinese Canadian National Council, about the possibility of financial redress.

His statement came just two days after Manitoba Tory MP Inky Mark, who spearheaded a private member’s bill on the head tax issue, reiterated his agreement with the Liberals that an apology was a “slippery slope” leading to a possible avalanche of legal claims.

“What [past governments] did was legal,” he told reporters. “That didn’t make it morally right or ethical, but the fact was it was legal.”

Mr. Harper, however, chose to respond to the entreaties of three Conservative candidates in B.C. who urged him to revisit the issue. Among them was Darrel Reid, Mr. Chan’s Conservative opponent in Richmond.

Also adding to the fuel yesterday was Chinese-Canadian commentator Gabriel Yiu’s demand for an apology from Mr. Chan over remarks he made about Mr. Yiu in a radio interview. He denied making any misleading statements as alleged by Mr. Chan, calling them defamatory and unacceptable.

Mr. Chan laughed off Mr. Yiu’s demand.

“He’s trying to speak as a commentator and not telling people he was an NDP candidate [in the past provincial election]. You cannot mislead people like that.”

He also brushed off any suggestion that the controversy was causing him political trouble.

“It’s all orchestrated. If you look at the support of the associations that have signed on to the agreement, it’s historic. There has never been so much wide support. I think Chinese-Canadian voters understand.”

Mr. Tan, meanwhile, said he intends to continue galvanizing “the grandmas and the grandpas” to fight for an apology and, at the very least, some repayment in recognition of the head tax they were forced to pay alone among all immigrants to Canada.

“There is anger and frustration out there. It’s not orchestrated, despite what Raymond Chan says. It’s real.”

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