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The federal government should provide compensation to the families of Chinese immigrants who paid a discriminatory head tax, a group of Chinese-Canadian activists said yesterday.

Currently, only surviving head-tax payers or their spouses are eligible to claim a $20,000 settlement from the Conservative government, which formally apologized last June for the head tax and the subsequent 24-year ban on immigration from China.

But compensation should be extended to the families of deceased head-tax payers who also suffered as a result of the policy, the Chinese Canadian National Council said.

That could expand the number of Chinese-Canadian families eligible for the redress from 500 to 3,000, the group estimates.

NDP MP Olivia Chow and the group have asked to meet with the government to address the issue.

But Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney wouldn't commit to negotiations, saying the government maintains an "open dialogue" with the Chinese-Canadian community.

"The government's made its decision on redress, and I don't see the cabinet reconsidering that," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "But there's always room for creative thoughts."

About 81,000 immigrants paid the head tax, which was imposed on Chinese immigrants entering Canada from 1885 until 1923. The tax was set at $50 when it was first imposed in 1885, and in 1903 it rose to $500 -- the equivalent of two years wages.

Newfoundland also imposed a head tax from 1906 to 1949, ending in the year it joined Confederation.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the formal apology last summer, Chinese-Canadian groups had hoped the government would also compensate first-generation children of the head-tax payers.

But the government decided to limit it to those most directly affected, Mr. Kenney said.

The activists argue that Canada's policies toward Chinese immigrants caused their children to suffer as well, dividing families across continents and leaving many in poverty while the immigrants struggled to pay off debts incurred by the tax.

Doug Hum said it took his father and uncle more than 10 years to pay off the $1,000 debt they incurred to cover the head taxes they paid upon arriving in Canada in 1912.

They managed to save enough money to return to China and marry, but couldn't bring their wives to Canada under the Exclusion Act, which came into effect in 1923.

"There is a grievous injustice here," Mr. Hum said.

"The tax belongs to the families, and it should be returned. Whole families were affected. Many had to beg, borrow from other family members to get here."

While the government acknowledges their suffering, Mr. Kenney said it had to "draw the line somewhere" when deciding on a compensation package.

"Part of our concern, quite frankly, is that many families in this country have suffered hardship or injustice or discrimination, and we don't want to create social divisions where people start comparing or compensating each other through their tax dollars for the sufferings of their parents or grandparents," he said.

"We are concerned that could undermine social cohesion in this country, and we want this whole experience of redress for the Chinese head tax to be a unifying and educational experience."

Mr. Kenney also said the council's position on compensating families of head-tax payers isn't representative of the majority of the Chinese-Canadian community.

In addition to the apology and compensation package, Mr. Kenney said the government plans to honour the memory of head-tax immigrants by spending at least $2.5-million on a program to educate Canadians about that period of history.

The money is part of a $24-million fund the government announced last June to establish a historical recognition program to provide grants and contributions to communities for commemorative projects dealing with past immigration restrictions and war measures that affected many segments of the population.