Government offers apology, compensation for head tax
Globe and Mail Update
Prime Minister Stephen Harper closed a dark chapter in Canadian history Thursday by issuing a public apology in Ottawa to those who were forced to pay the Chinese head tax and promised compensation to the survivors and also to the widows of immigrants who paid the tax.
"On behalf of the people and Government of Canada, we offer a full apology to Chinese Canadians for the head tax and express our deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants," Mr. Harper said in the House of Commons Thursday.
The Prime Minister thanked Chinese Canadians for their role in building of the country's railways, what he referred to as "the iron backbone" of our developing country, and for which thousands of Chinese immigrants died building.
Mr. Harper said the federal government would also issue "symbolic payment" to survivors and their widows. The compensation will amount $20,000 each, according to Canadian Heritage.
"No country is perfect. Canada, like all other countries, has committed errors in the past, and we are aware of this. Nevertheless, the people of Canada are fair, and we will be undertaking measures of redress."
The government has apparently identified 29 people who paid the tax, but there are roughly an additional 250 to 300 widows still alive. Overall, about 81,000 Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a total of $23-million to enter Canada beginning in the late-1800s until 1923.
The federal government brought survivors and their families by train to Ottawa Thursday for the apology in the House of Commons, some travelling as far as from Vancouver on what has been dubbed the Redress Express.
A huge influx of Chinese immigrants came to Canada between 1881 and 1885 to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
"From the moment the railway was complete, Canada turned its back on these men," Mr. Harper acknowledged Thursday. "We feel compelled to right this historic wrong for the simple reason that it is the decent thing to do, a characteristic to be found at the core of the Canadian soul."
The Canadian government imposed a head tax of $50 per person to limit immigration. The tax was later increased to $500, or roughly the equivalent to two years in wages at the time.
The head tax was paid until 1923, when Canada banned Chinese immigration. That act was repealed in 1947.
Mr. Harper said "the head tax - a product of a profoundly different time -lies far in our past."
In addition to the apology and the compensation, the government will also a national recognition program established for educational and cultural activities. Estimates of the cost of the overall program varied, although one source said it would top $30-million.
The Italian, Ukrainian, and the Sikh communities are also expected to receive a portion of the $25-million fund put aside by from the former Liberal government for redress to a number of cultural communities.
"Our deep sorrow over the racist actions of our past will nourish our unwavering commitment to build a better future for all Canadians," Mr. Harper said