Updated Thu. Jun. 22 2006 11:30 PM ET

Survivors of the head-tax era arrive aboard the 'Redress Express.'

Survivors of the head-tax era arrive aboard the 'Redress Express.'

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The Chinese head tax

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PM apologizes in House of Commons for head tax

CTV.ca News

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a message of redress today in the House of Commons for a head tax once applied to Chinese immigrants, calling it a "grave injustice."

"The Canada we know today would not be what it is without the work of Chinese workers," said Harper.

He added that Chinese immigrants were a crucial part of "the most important nation building exercise in Canadian history -- the construction of the Canadian pacific railway."

The government will offer symbolic payments to living head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Bev Oda said the amount would be $20,000 each.

She also said the government will spend $24 million on a "community historical recognition program," of which $2.5 million will be allocated towards promoting awareness of the head tax and immigration prohibitions imposed on the Chinese community.

"We believe that representatives of the Chinese community can best recommend the types of projects that will provide a lasting, meaningful legacy," said Oda during a reception Thursday afternoon for community members.

She added that a separate $10 million "national historical recognition program" will focus on increasing awareness about the discrimination faced by the Chinese and other ethno-cultural groups affected by wartime measures and immigration restrictions.

Chinese-Canadian groups had expected the government would offer a multi-million-dollar compensation package to survivors who paid it, widows and their children.

"The apology, (one that is) sincere and in depth, is very important because Chinese have been in this country for over 150 years," Gim Wong, a Canadian-born son of head tax payers and Second World War veteran, told Canada AM Thursday.

"They contribute so much to the country and building the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) alone -- when as many as 4,000 died out of 15,000 or 16,000 -- that is horrific."

Between 1885 and 1923, some 81,000 Chinese immigrants had to pay as much as $500 to enter Canada, an amount equivalent to about two years salary today.

A lawyer for the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers & Families said collection of the tax stopped in 1923, but "the government replaced it...with an Exclusion Act from 1923 to 1947."

Immigration from China during that period had been banned entirely. "So for 24 years, Chinese were not allowed to come to Canada. Period," Avvy Go told Canada AM from Ottawa on Thursday.

Some of the Chinese Canadians -- who paid to get into the country at the turn of the 20th Century -- their spouses and descendants arrived in Ottawa on Wednesday. The group had been travelling across the country on a VIA Rail train dubbed the "Redress Express".

Few of the thousands of people who actually paid the tax are still alive.

Using the railroad is an intentional bit of symbolism for the group, which started off from Vancouver last Friday.

"The purpose of tying this in with a railway ride is to remind ourselves that the railroad is part of the mythology of Canada and helped build Canada," said Susan Eng, co-chair of the Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers. "And we have to remember the Chinese workers who gave their lives to build this country."

Ralph Lung Kee Lee, 106, came to Canada as a 12-year-old boy and worked on the railroad starting at age 17. He paid the discriminatory tax.

"We are happy to be here because it's been, you know, a long waiting for this to come," said Linda Ing, his daughter.

He was carrying a ceremonial "last spike" to deliver to the prime minister.

On Nov. 7, 1885, the Hon. Donald Alexander Smith hammered in the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C.

However, Chinese railway workers, who had flooded in by the thousands starting in 1881, weren't allowed to attend that ceremony.

Some Chinese-Canadian groups wanted payments of between $10,000 and $21,000 for surviving immigrants, widows and first-generation children.

Similar payments were made by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney to Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War.

"Apologies will be hollow words without substance behind it. It's important that there be some kind of token gesture while they are sill alive to see it," Eng told reporters.

However, the apology itself is crucial, she said.

"An apology means that there is a public and official acknowledgment that this was legislation that was unreservedly racist ... and this is something that the government of the day has chosen, properly, to apologize for."

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