The Chinese Head Tax

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There have been several dark chapters in Canadian history, from our own slavery history, to our treatment of the Indigenous, the internment of those we deem to be enemy aliens. One of the worst though, was implemented in 1885 and would survive to the 1920s, only to be replaced with something worse.

It was the Chinese Head Tax, and it’s a stain on the history of Canada.

When Canada was building the Trans-Continental Railway, the government wanted to get the railroad built fast and cheap. To accomplish that, 17,000 labourers were brought in from China and the United States to work on the rail line. Those workers would deal with terrible conditions, were paid one-third of what their co-workers made and dealt with immense racism.

As workers from China came into the country, there was a backlash against their immigration, especially in British Columbia. In 1878, the British Columbia government would attempt to pass a law that would ban all Chinese immigration into the province. This was struck down by the courts though, and not for the reason that it was incredibly racist. Instead, it was struck down because the courts ruled that it was beyond the jurisdiction of a provincial legislature, and was something only a federal government could do.

The federal government would, of course, do just that.

As soon as the last spike was driven in at Craigallachie in 1885, the government didn’t see a need for the Chinese immigrants who had come to Canada to start new lives and literally built the rail line linking the country. While those immigrants had begun to integrate themselves into Canadian society, the government didn’t want any more immigrants arriving.

In 1885, anti-immigration sentiment in British Columbia was extremely strong. In 1884, the British Columbia government attempted to impose an annual poll tax of $10 on Chinese immigrants, and to forbid them from buying land.

The federal government would respond to this by organizing a Royal Commission to obtain the proof it needed to restrict Chinese immigrations, with the excuse that it was in the best interests of Canada.

At first, Sir John A. Macdonald, the prime minister at the time, was against implementing the measures to prevent Chinese immigration, but with sentiment so high, he saw the commission as a good way to pass the issue.

The Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was formed after it was ordered into creation by Macdonald on July 4, 1884. Two men were appointed to this commission. The first was Joseph Adolphe-Chapleau, who had been the fifth premier of Quebec and was currently a member of Parliament and the Secretary of State of Canada. The second was John Hamilton Gray, the former premier of the Colony of New Brunswick, a former Member of Parliament and currently a member of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Through the Inquiry, the Commissioners spoke with 51 witnesses who submitted testimonies and answered 27 questions regarding Chinese immigrants, what should be done about them and should they be restricted. Most of those interviewed gave negative testimonies against the Chinese. An example of this is that 20 of the witnesses stated that the Chinese had helped to develop the province, while at the same time 10 stated that the Chinese had also had a negative impact.

The Commission would speak primarily with individuals in Victoria, and some in Nanaimo and New Westminster. Many critics felt that this skewed the report as it was in the countryside that they felt the Chinese men were taking jobs, rather than in the cities. The commission also found that there were 157 Chinese women in British Columbia and 10,335 Chinese men. The commission looked at the immigration policies of other countries including the American Chinese Exclusion Act, the New Zealand immigration policy and the Australia policy. Both of those countries had their own tax on Chinese immigrants.

In 1885, the Commission would submit its final report, concluding there was little evidence to support claims against Chinese immigration. The commissioners stated that the Chinese were judged on unfair standards. Even with the lack of evidence of any threat of Chinese immigration, the report still recommended moderate legislation against immigration.

The commission found three categories of opinions on Chinese immigrants. It would state, quote:

“1. Of a well-meaning, but strongly prejudiced minority, whom nothing but absolute exclusion will satisfy.

2. An intelligent minority, who conceive that no legislation whatever is necessary – that, as in all business transactions, the rule of supply and demand will apply and the matter regulate itself in the ordinary course of events.

3. Of a large majority, who think there should be moderate restriction, based upon police, financial and sanitary principles, sustained and enforced by stringent local regulations for cleanliness and the preservation of health.”

Only a small minority felt that no legislation was needed.

Instead of pushing for an outright ban on Chinese immigration, the commission stated that a head tax was the best option. The commission found that the average Chinese labourer made $300 each year, and saved $43 per year.

Upon the report coming out, many in British Columbia were angry that it was not harsh enough in its wording. On March 6, 1885, a public meeting was held in Victoria, attended by the mayor and local Members of Parliament, to push the government for harsher action. Local MP, labelled as Mr. Duck, would tell the gathered meeting members, quote:

“Whereas the action of the commissioners Misters Chapleau and Gray, appointed to enquire into the Chinese question, has to a great extent failed to recommend such measures as would be calculated to remedy the evil effects of the presence of Chinese in our midst and if their recommendations were to be wholly acted on by the Government of Canada, it would necessarily fail to accomplish the object desired.”

A meeting was also held in Toronto where a J.W. Rooney, where he would state, quote:

“That the advent of a large number of Chinese, under prior contract and as semi-slaves, is in itself contrary to the spirit of our freedom. That they are a menace to the morality of this Christian country are antagonistic to the interests of the country as a whole and that their competition as slaves in the labor market is detrimental to the welfare of the working people of Canada.”

The Canadian government then passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 due to the findings of the commission. It did not implement a $10 tax though, instead choosing a $50 head tax on all Chinese immigrants except diplomats, government workers, tourists, merchants, scientists and students.

This act was the first in Canadian history to exclude immigrants simply on the basis of their ethnic origin.

The Act didn’t just put in the restriction of a head tax. It only allowed one Chinese passenger for every 50 tons of the total weight of a ship.

The Act would state, quote:

“No vessel carrying Chinese immigrants to any port in Canada shall carry more than one such immigrant for every fifty tons of tonnage and the owner of any such vessel who carries any number in excess of the number allowed by this section shall be liable to a penalty of $50 for each person so carried in excess.”

To put this into contrast, the restriction for European immigrants was set at one person per two tons of weight. When Chinese immigrants arrived, they were often put in detention facilities for weeks before they were allowed into the country.

Over the coming years, there would be several amendments to the original act. In 1887, any Chinese woman who married a non-Chinese man was exempt from the head tax. The amendment also allowed a Chinese individual to pass through the country by rail enroute to another country.

In 1892, an amendment was put in place that required any Chinese person to who left the country on a temporary basis to register with immigration authorities.

In 1902, the head tax had not slowed Chinese immigration and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier government doubled the tax from $50 to $100. That same year, a second inquiry, called the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese immigration. That commission would suggest that the tax needed to be increase to $500 to prevent Chinese immigration to the country. This huge increase made the tax equal to the cost of two homes at the time, or two years’ salary. Parliament would pass the recommendation in 1903.

On Feb. 24, 1902, the following was reported in the Vancouver Province, quote:

“It is announced that the majority report of the Chinese Commission will recommend an increase of the head tax to $500. A minority report will recommend that the head tax be $300 for two years, then to be increased to $500 if $300 is found insufficient. The report is therefore practically unanimous.”

Stowaways were relatively common as immigrants tried to avoid the racist tax. On Oct. 15, 1902, the Victoria Daily Times reported that stowaways were found on The Glenogle when it arrived in town, stating quote:

“There were on board the steamer 18 Chinese stowaways. These were unable to pay their head tax and were accordingly turned over by the captain to the police authorities. An information was also laid against them for being stowaways and the band were marched out to the provincial jail.”

In order to come to Canada, many Chinese immigrants would borrow the money to pay the tax, and would then spend years paying off the debt, well before they could save any to bring any members of their family over.

Even with the tax, coming to Canada was an attractive option as it was possible to earn 10 to 20 times more in Canada than in China. As Chinese immigration continued, some in power wanted to make sure that they could take things to an even greater extreme. Edward Gawler Prior, the MP for Victoria, would move the reading of a bill that would regulate immigration into Canada, refusing to allow anyone in who was not able to write in a European language. The Victoria Daily Times would report, quote:

“The head tax proved insufficient to keep the Chinese and Japanese out but the provisions of the bill would prove thoroughly effective.”

In 1906, Newfoundland, which was not part of Canada at the time, introduced its own head tax that required Chinese immigrants to pay $300. That tax would remain in effect until 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada.

Further restrictions were put in place through an amendment in 1908, which no longer allowed students to be exempt from the tax. This was done because the government felt that Chinese immigrants would come to the country at 15, attend school for two years, and then once they hit the age of 17, would then switch to become a merchant or something else and avoid the tax.

Duncan Ross, an MP from Ontario, would state in a discussion about the matter, quote:

“We should confine this privilege to young Chinamen who come here solely for the purpose of receiving an education, the assumption being that they are going back to China when they received that education.”

In 1910, the Chinese Immigration 9 Forms became the first mass use of identification photography in Canada, predating driver licences and passport photos by years.

With the amount of money coming in from the head tax, and a large portion of it going to British Columbia, there was resentment from other provinces who wanted to get some of the money as well. Ontario was one such province and in an article printed on Nov. 12, 1910, it is stated, quote:

“The collector of customs at Toronto, who evidently possesses the Ontario spirit discovered that British Columbia was getting $800,000 to $900,000 per year out of the tax on incoming Chinamen and he lost sleep in discovering how his own province could pull down some of this amount.”

In 1917, immigration officials were given the right to arrest any Chinese person that they believed to be in Canada illegally.

Ironically, on March 26, 1917, the report that the United States would charge a head tax on any Canadian moving into the country was met with anger by Canadians, who at the same time supported the Chinese Head Tax for their own country.

A story printed in the Regina Leader-Post stated, quote:

“After April, Canadians who want to locate in the United States will have to pay the head tax of eight dollars. The act will even penalize Canadians living in the US who have not become citizens. If they revisit their old home, on returning to their place of business, the head tax must be imposed.”

At the same time, due to so many young men serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, there was a shortage of labour and Chinese Canadians filled that need. Of course, once the war was over, most were fired from their jobs. The sad fact is that 300 Chinese Canadians volunteered to fight in the First World War to fight for their new country but even in the army they were subjected to racism and those in charge were very hesitant to giving an officer commission to a Chinese Canadian.

In 1919, a Chinese Canadian named Fong Soon was sent to court and charged with landing in Canada without paying a head tax. He had actually paid the tax in 1901 when he first arrived but in 1918 he made a short trip to the United States. A B.C. court upheld that he did not have to pay the head tax again as the registrations for travel outside Canada were meant for those who went to China, not to the United States.

The Vancouver Sun would report, quote:

“Fong Soon came here some years ago on payment of the head tax of $500 and his visit to Bellingham was of the clandestine order. He was arrested at Cloverdale and charged with having unlawfully entered Canada was fined $100 and costs and stood in peril of being deported to China. On appeal it was contended on his behalf that having been properly admitted to Canada on payment of the head tax he could not be convicted of unlawfully entering the country.”

Soon enough, the Canadian government made a change in 1921 when any Chinese person who left Canada for more than two years had to pay another head tax upon their return to Canada.

In 1923, the Chinese Head Tax was ended. Over the course of the 38 years that it was in place, 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid $23 million in tax, or $1.2 billion today. Of that, 40 per cent went to British Columbia.

T.G. McBride, the MP for the Cariboo riding, would state quote:

“If the Almighty had intended the people of the Orient and of Canada to live together he would not have put the Pacific between them.”

This remark brought a round of laughter in the House of Commons while they debating banning Chinse immigrants from coming to Canada.

McBride would go on, speaking about not allowing merchants into the country, stating quote:

“Why let Chinese merchants come in to run our cities. I think we have sufficient at present.”

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would state, quote:

“The head tax had been abolished because it had been considered out of character that a country calling itself Christian should handle a problem by imposing a head tax on working people while at the same time subscribing funds for missionaries to go to China to import the principle of Christianity. The people of the republic did not want to be placed under the indignity of exclusion, though they would not be offended by a law restricting immigration.”

Despite the efforts to stop Chinese immigration, between 1881 and 1921, the Chinese population grew from 4,383 to 39,587 people.

On top of the head tax, Chinese Canadians could not practice law or medicine, could not vote in elections, could not hold public office, own Crown land or be employed on public works. Chinese Canadians were not allowed to swim in pools with white people, and had to be segregated in movie theatres. Even provinces that had small Chinese Canadian populations put in laws to restrict the new immigrants. For example, in 1901, Manitoba adopted language tests. These tests disqualified people as voters if they were unable to pass a language test in a selected European language. In Saskatchewan in 1912, the White Women’s Labour Protection Act was passed that forbid any Chinese employer from hiring white women employees.

Due to the costs in moving to Canada, it was mostly men who came to the country, creating a ratio where there were 28 Chinese men for every one Chinese woman. The hope for many of the men was to come to Canada, save their money, and then bring their families over. Unfortunately, a new act by the government would put a stop to that completely.

While the Chinese Head Tax ended, it wasn’t because everyone realized it was racist. Instead, the Chinese Exclusion Act came into place. This banned all Chinese immigrants to the country except for merchants, diplomats and students. The Act remained in place until 1947.

In 1984, Margaret Mitchell, a Member of Parliament in Vancouver, raised the issue of repaying Chinese Canadians. Two of her constituents had paid the tax and wanted to be repaid their $500. This request was denied by the government. Soon after 4,000 head tax payers approached the Chinese Canadian National Council to register their Head Tax certifications and ask the government for redress.

In 1988, the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the agreement acknowledged the injustices suffered by Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.

In 1993, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made an offer of individual medallions, a museum wing and other collective measures. This was rejected by Chinese Canadian national groups. Jean Chretien would become prime minister that same year, and the Cabinet refused to provide an apology or redress.

In 2000, Shack Jang Mak, a head tax payer, along with the widow and son of another head tax payer, Guang Foo Lee, launched a class action suit that was struck down by the Ontario Superior Court.

On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons to head-tax payers, their families and the Chinese Canadian community. He pledged a commitment to establish funds to create community projects that acknowledge the past of immigration restrictions. On June 28, Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador apologized for the $300 head tax.

In 2009, 785 people received payments of $20,000 from the federal government. Most were families of head-tax payers, while less than 50 head-tax payers received money for the injustice.

The Government of Canada would establish the Community Historical Recognition Program, which would allocate $5 million to projects about Chinese immigration restrictions. This led to the creation of 33 art, music, theatre, oral history, film and literature projects.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia,, Wikipedia, Background To Chinese Head Tax, Road to Justice, Vancouver Province, Victoria Daily Colonist, Regina Leader Post, The Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette,

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