On Nov. 7, 2004, Karen Cho’s first documentary film—in the Shadow of Gold Mountain—was screened in Toronto. It was a part of a national tour to launch her film. It was launched by CCNC (Chinese Canadian National Council) and NARCC (National Anti-Racism Council of Canada) in partnership with NFB (National Film Board) and numerous local organizations. The Toronto premiere was coincided with the 119th anniversary of the driving of the Last Spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia (BC), Canada to complete the transcontinental railroad.
As stated in NFB’s website: Karen Cho, a fifth-generation Canadian of mixed heritage, discovered that half her family wasn’t welcome in the country they called home. While Canada encouraged and rewarded immigration from Europe, it imposed law that singled out the Chinese as unwanted and unwelcome. This film takes Cho from Montréal to Vancouver to uncover stories from the last living survivors of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act. This dark chapter in our history, from 1885 until 1947, plunged the Chinese community in Canada into decades of debt and family separation. At the centre of the film are personal accounts of extraordinary Chinese Canadians who survived an era that threatened to eradicate their entire community. Through a rich melding of history, poetry and raw emotion, this documentary sheds light of an era that shaped the identity of generations. With deeply moving testimonials, it reveals the profound ways of this history still casts its shadow.
You are probably wondering…. What is ‘Last Spike’? What are Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act? What has been done to address these issues? Is it still worth it to continue campaign to redress these racist regulations?
First of all, please read the background on the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act (source: CCNC as of March 2004 and other sources).
History of Chinese Immigration in Canada
1788. The first Chinese to settle in Canada were 50 artisans who accompanied Captain John Meares to help build a trading post and encourage trade in sea otter pelts between Canton and Nootka Sound. The Spanish, who were seeking a trade monopoly on the West Coast, drove out Captain Meares, leaving many of the Chinese crew to settle in the area. Some married native women.
In 1858 Chinese immigrants began arriving from San Francisco as gold prospectors in the Fraser River Valley, and Barkerville, BC, and became the first Chinese community in Canada. By 1860 the Chinese population of Vancouver Island and BC was estimated to be 7,000. The first Chinese migrants were young peasants from South China who laboured under appalling conditions to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)—they were brought in from China to help build the railway. Between 1880 and 1885, 15,000 Chinese labourers completed the BC section of the CPR and about 6,500 of these were employed directly by the CPR. Largely because of the Trans-Canada railway, Chinese communities developed across the nation.
The railway navvies were a mixed lot… a band of Italians… a team of Englishmen… a scholar who could speak and write Greek… a surgeon from Montréal… a pastor from Chicago, etc. Generally, it was said that the men were a rough lot with ill manners and disagreeable mouths. They were there for the $2.00 to $2.50 a day, which was good pay for the time. However, the Chinese workers were paid less, only a dollar a day. These Chinese workers were also forced to buy all their supplies from the company store, and were made to build their own camps. All this they agreed to do, for the money they saved would serve them for life in China. Death was far more frequent among the Chinese than the other groups. The litany of death reads “crushed by a log,” “killed by falling rock,” “drowned,” “smothered by cave-in” and of course death by explosion. Scores also died of scurvy, 200 in the first year alone. They received little notice or medical care.
We can scour over many textbooks, articles, websites, etc. to do a research on CPR, and in every source the nuance of pride of this transcontinental project is so strong. Well, it was quite a spectacular achievement: some 2,000 miles of steel crossed the continent in just five years — exactly half the time stipulated in the contract. Over the next decade and a half, the railway transported troops, settlers and materials westward, but it was not until the turn of the century that the railway became the catalyst to an unprecedented wave of economic expansion in Canada.
Those references also scatter with famous names, pioneers, surveyors, engineers, politicans, etc., but only a few mentions about more than 7,000 Chinese workers, toiling and dying in the canyons of the Fraser Valley. These Chinese labourers worked under harsh condition sometimes when it was 40°C below zero. Their and other navvies’ deaths are merely numbers. Where are their names recorded, except on tombstones along the way?
The ‘Last Spike’ is an actual railway spike donated by Pierre Berton (author of The Last Spike) to the Last Spike Campaign in Canada. It was recovered near Craigellachie, BC, the site where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven. Craigellachie, BC, located at the west entrance to Eagle Pass, was the place for the symbolic “last spike” for the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, November 7, 1885. It is a symbol of deep-seated issue in Canada’s history.
The Chinese Head Tax (1885) and Exclusion Act (1923-1947)
As soon as the CPR was completed, the Federal Government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese to Canada. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a Head Tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. $500 was equivalent to two years wages of a Chinese labourer at the time. Meanwhile, Chinese were denied Canadian citizenship. The Federal Government collected $23 million (at that time) from the Chinese through the Head Tax. Note: its current value is beyond $1 billion excluding interests.
Despite the Head Tax, Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. Passed on July 1, 1923, Dominion Day, this law was perceived by the Chinese Canadian community as the ultimate form of humiliation.
The Impact of the Head Tax and Exclusion Act
In addition to the Head Tax and Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants faced other forms of discrimination in their social, economic and political lives. The most devastating impact of the Head Tax and the Exclusion Act, however, was found in the development of Chinese Canadian family. During the exclusion era, early Chinese pioneers were not allowed to bring their family, including their wives, to Canada. As a result, the Chinese Canadian community became a “bachelor society.” The Head Tax and Exclusion Act resulted in long periods of separation of families. Many Chinese families did not reunite until years after the initial marriage, and in some cases they were never reunited.
While their husbands were struggling abroad, many Chinese wives in China were left to raise their children by themselves. They experienced starvation and other extreme economic hardships.
Because of years of racist, anti-Chinese immigration legislation, today the Chinese Canadian community exhibits many characteristics of first-generation immigrants despite its history of close to 150 years in Canada.
The Redress Campaign
Since 1984, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) has been seeking redress on behalf of the surviving Head Tax payers and their families who have suffered from decades of discrimination as a result of these racist laws passed by the Federal Government. Over 4,000 Head Tax payers, widows or descendants have entrusted CCNC with representing them in seeking an apology and financial redress.
The CCNC has held community meetings, gathered support from other groups and prominent people, increased the media profile of this issue, conducted research and published materials, made presentation at schools, etc. The CCNC met frequently with various Ministers from the Mulroney, Chrétien and Martin governments.
In 1988, an agreement was reached between the Federal Government and the National Association of Japanese Canadians to redress the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the World War II. The Japanese Canadian redress is seen as an important milestone for that community and for Canada. For members of the Japanese Canadian community, redress confirms their rightful place in this country and their status as Canadians with a long history of contribution to this nation. For Canada, it reinforces our international reputation as a truly humanitarian country that embraces diversity and multiculturalism.
As of this date, the Canadian Government has yet to apologize to the Chinese Canadian community for the over 63 years of legislated racism towards Chinese Canadians. Former Prime Minister Mulroney tried to settle several ethnocultural communities’ redress claims just before he left office in 1993, by offering individual medallions, a museum wing and other collective measures. These were rejected outright by the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian Canadian national groups.
In 2000, a class action lawsuit was launched by CCNC against the Canadian Government. In July 2001, the Ontario Superior Court granted an application from the government for an early dismissal of the action without a trial. However, in the judgment, Justice Cumming stated, “It is vital that Canadians acknowledge this regretable legacy as we strive towards building a society that both celebrates diversity and protects every individual’s right to equality.” To that end, “Parliament should consider providing redress for Chinese Canadians who paid the Head Tax or were adversely affected by the various Chinese Immigration Acts.” Appeals to the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada were dismissed.
Tragically, Mr. Mack, the Head Tax payer plaintiff, passed away in March 2003. As the last surviving Head Tax payers enter the final stage of their lives, can our government in good conscience say to these pioneers that they do not deserve an apology or redress?
In the fall 2003, representatives of CCNC met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racial discrimination, Mr. Doudou Diene. In his report to the United Nations released in March 2004, Mr. Diene recommended that the Canadian Government consult with the Chinese Canadian community to redress the racist legacy of the Head Tax.
Following are the redress for the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act:
- Our government must not profit from its racism.
- Our surviving Head Tax payers are the true pioneers of our community. The government must not treat them as ancient history.
- We are asking for a return of only a very small portion of the current value of the $23 million that was collected in the racist Chinese Head Taxes.
- The Canadian Government has an opportunity to show its leadership on this issue, and to show Canada’s strong commitment to tolerance and anti-racism during these post-September 11th times.
- Redress will help to redefine the Chinese Canadian community as one that is rooted in 150 years of contribution to this nation. The fact that its image may be more of recent immigrants is due to the impact that the Head Tax and Exclusion Act had on our community’s development.