As a dominion of the British Empire, Canada tried to discourage, but could not, by its international obligations, completely eliminate, Chinese immigration at its borders.
Canada's federal Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 stipulated that all Chinese entering Canada pay a $50 fee, later referred to as a head tax. This was amended in 1887, 1892, and 1900.
Not all Chinese arrivals had to pay the head tax. Some were presumed to return to China after "sojourning" to Canada because of their transitory occupation, or background (students, teachers, missionaries, merchants, members of the diplomatic corps) and were, therefore, exempt from paying this fee.
In the early 1900s, the value of $500 was two years' salary, or enough to purchase two homes in Montreal, or a 1/4 section of land in many provinces. These taxes went into a Consolidated Revenue Fund and were spent by a government in which the payers had no representation (Chinese were not permitted to vote at the time).
These acts were regarded as examples of anti-Chinese legislation in Canada that were part of general institutional racism against the Chinese in Canada.
The Chinese were the only ethnic group that had to pay a Head Tax to enter Canada, although efforts to impose one on Americans during the colonial period were overruled by the Colonial Office in London. Other Asians, such as the East Indians and the Japanese, were not subject to a Head Tax. There were, however, formal and informal limits to how many Japanese people could immigrate to Canada.
Before the Statute of Westminster 1931, the Government of the United Kingdom controlled Canada's international affairs. Canada could not deter citizens from India, which was still a British crown colony, or Japan, which agreed to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902. Yet, the Government of Canada made efforts to require citizens of Japan and other British Far Eastern colonies to have to travel by direct voyage, only.
The head tax system had the effect of constraining Chinese immigration: making labour available for the railroads, and putting limits on the lives of the immigrants. This was in contrast to the goal of exclusion of Chinese immigration altogether, as articulated by contemporary politicions and labour leaders. The system was effective in discouraging Chinese women and children from joining their men, so the Chinese community in Canada became a "bachelor society".
The head tax was ended by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which stopped Chinese immigration entirely, though certain exemptions such as those for business owners and others permitted some continued immigration It is sometimes referred to by opponents as the Chinese Exclusion Act, a term also used for its American counterpart.
Since 1984, the 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 Canadian Government. Over 4,000 Head Tax payers, spouses and descendants entrusted CCNC with representing them in seeking an apology and financial redress. The redress campaign included holding numerous community meetings, gathering support from other groups and prominent people, increasing the media profile, conducting research and published materials, making presentations at schools, etc. CCNC continued to meet with various Multiculturalism Ministers. In 1993, months before a federal election, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made an offer of individual medallions, a museum wing and other collective measures involving several other redress-seeking communities. This was rejected outright by the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian Canadian national groups.
After Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was elected in 1993, his Government openly refused to provide an apology or redress. The following few years saw little major activity although no one gave up on redress, and CCNC and its supporters continued to raise the issue whenever they could, including a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Another phase of the redress campaign started in 1999 with the planning and implementation of the court action against the Government. The CCNC argued that the federal government should not be profiting from racism, and that it had a responsibility under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under international human rights law. In addition, the 1988 official apology and compensation (supported by CCNC) for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II set a precedent for redressing racially motivated policies. The Ontario court declared in 2001 that the Government of Canada had no obligation to redress the head tax levied on Chinese immigrants because the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had no retroactive application, and that the case of internment of Japanese Canadians was not a legal precedent for compensating past racist policies. Two appeals in 2002 and 2003 were unsuccessful, but the judge’s supportive words in the original 2001 decision helped to raise awareness and keep up the pressure.
As Prime Minister Paul Martin entered the scene in 2003, there was renewed hope amongst both long-time redress activists and new supporters. The urgency of the situation became the overriding factor as it became clear that there were perhaps only a few dozen surviving Head Tax payers left and maybe a few hundred spouses or widows.
In the years from 2003 to 2006, there were several national events that helped to revitalize the redress campaign. The highlights were the 2003 Last Spike Redress Campaign with the symbolic “last spike” of the Canadian Pacific Railway donated by Pierre Berton to CCNC. In 2004, in response to a submission by the Chinese Canadian Redress Alliance in Montreal, a timely Report by Doudou Diène, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, concluded that Canada should redress the head tax to Chinese Canadians
In the summer of 2005, Gim Wong – an 80-year-old son of a Head Tax payer and a World War II veteran – started his cross-country Ride for Redress on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. The year 2005 also saw the creation of the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers and Families, which worked closely with CCNC and the B.C. Coalition that was so successful in the early 1990s.
This proposal was instantly met by controversy.
Among other things, the deal had been negotiated without the participation of a number of the most active groups across Canada, including the CCNC.
Accordingly, when the Department of Heritage announced its preliminary agreement on November 24, 2005, funding was suddenly reduced to $2.5 million--most likely the result of fierce and obvious opposition in the broader community. It was also later, revealed that Raymond Chan, the government official claiming to have negotiated with community groups who held no family ties to the issue, purposely misled the government and public that the Chinese community was willing to accept "no apology, [and] no [individual or collective] compensation."
The authors of the unpopular proposal also claimed support of 11 Chinese-Canadian groups. Yet, upon further examination, some of the named groups stated publicly that their names had been used without permission; several other groups listed, did not even exist. The out-going Liberal Government tabled bill C-333 (as a private member's bill) to implement the deal in November 2004, but this bill died when the Government fell on November 28, 2005.
Opposition grew louder in the Chinese Canadian community and, in response, major redress-seeking alliances and coalitions were formed. This marked a major turning point for the Head Tax Campaign across Canada. The public lobby took prominence during and after, the 2006 federal election. In addition, significant, individual efforts in private, would lead to future negotiations with the Conservative Party.
On December 8, 2005, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper released a press statement expressing his support for an apology for the head tax. As a part of his 2006 election platform, Mr. Harper promised to work with the Chinese community on redress should the Conservatives form the next government.
Before ultimately losing the federal election, the out-going Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Paul Martin issued a half-hearted personal apology on a Chinese language radio program. However, he was quickly criticized by the Chinese Canadian community for not issuing the apology in Parliament and, then, trying to dismiss it completely in the English-speaking media on the very same day. Several Liberal candidates with significant Chinese-Canadian populations in their ridings, including Vancouver-Kingsway MP David Emerson, and the Minister of State (Multiculturalism) and Richmond MP Raymond Chan, also made futile attempts to change their positions in the midst of the 2006 election campaign.
"Chinese Canadians are making an extraordinary impact on the building of our country. They've also made a significant historical contribution despite many obstacles. That's why, as I said during the election campaign, the Chinese Canadian community deserves an apology for the head tax and appropriate acknowledgement and redress.
Formal discussions on the form of apology and redress began on March 24, 2006 with a preliminary meeting with Chinese Canadians representing various groups (including some head tax payers), Heritage Minister Bev Oda, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Jason Kenney, resulting in the "distinct possibility" of a formal government apology before July 1, 2006 to commemorate the anniversary of the enacting of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923.
From April 21 to April 30, 2006, the Conservative government hosted public, national consultations across Canada in cities most actively involved in the campaign, since it first began: Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, and Winnipeg. They included the personal testimony of elders and representatives from a number of groups, among them, the Halifax Redress Committee; the BC Coalition of Head Tax Payers, Spouses & Descendants; ACCESS; the Ontario Coalition of Head Payers & Families; the CCNC; the Edmonton Redress Committee of the Chinese Canadian Historical Association of Alberta; and, the National Redress Alliance headquartered in Montreal.
On June 22 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology and compensation only for the head tax once paid by Chinese immigrants. Survivors or their spouses will be paid approximately $20,000 CAD in compensation. There are only an estimated 20 Chinese Canadians who paid the tax still alive in 2006.
Some have proposed that the redress be based on the number of "Head Tax" Certificates (or estates) brought forward by surviving sons and daughters who are still able to register their claims, with proposals for individual redress, ranging from $10,000 to 30,000 for an estimated 4,000 registrants.
As no mention of redress for those children was made, the Chinese Canadian community continues to fight for a redress from the Canadian government. A national day of protest was held on July 1, 2006 in major cities across Canada, with several hundred Chinese Canadians joining in local marches.