In the decades since Dick Chan became a Canadian citizen, his vote has gone to the Liberals. But that is about to change.
Mr. Chan says he lost faith in the party that has traditionally been seen as the ally of immigrant Canadians when, of all things, the government announced a plan to redress the historical injustice of the Chinese head tax.
In the dying days of the Liberal minority, Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan said the irritant would finally be resolved. A package of $2.5-million would be set aside to acknowledge that this country demanded hundreds of dollars from each Chinese immigrant who arrived between 1885 and 1923 -- before immigration from China was effectively banned.
The money could go toward a museum or a series of postage stamps, for instance. But the government would not apologize for fear that admitting guilt could open a floodgate on legal claims. There would be no compensation, even for the 200 or so surviving people who paid the fee.
And the group that agreed to the proposal -- the National Congress of Chinese Canadians -- is not the organization that many Chinese see as the historical leader in the fight for redress. Some accuse it of having Liberal ties.
The money has not yet been handed over, but the congress plans to form a committee that will include a cross-section of the Chinese community to determine how it will be distributed.
Since the announcement, Chinese communities across Canada have mobilized. Phone lines at Chinese radio talk shows have lit up. Chinese-language newspapers have devoted much space to the discussion. And opposition leaders are demanding an apology.
Chinese Canadians account for nearly 4 per cent of the population.
Dick Chan, who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s and is not descended from any head-tax payer, says the issue has so enraged large segments of the Chinese community that they are being moved to vote. And in some Toronto and Vancouver constituencies -- including Raymond Chan's riding of Richmond in B.C. -- 40 per cent of the population is Chinese.
"The key thing for most of us, the reason why the head-tax issue has become an election issue, is the Liberal refusal to apologize," Dick Chan of Toronto said.
Dick Chan is a member of the Chinese Canadian National Council, which has been working to obtain justice for head-tax payers since 1984. The council was effectively shut out of the plan for addressing the matter.
Unlike the council, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, which was formed in 1991 and has always argued against individual compensation, agreed that an apology is not needed, Mr. Chan said, "and that's why the government negotiated with them."
Don Lee, the national director of the congress, said it has no direct ties to the Liberals. But, he said, most Chinese Canadians support the Liberal Party because it abolished the Chinese exclusion act that prevented Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada.
Simon Li hosts Power Politics on Toronto First Radio. On Dec. 2, his guest was Liberal Leader Paul Martin and the topic was the head tax.
"Why, Mr. Prime Minister, on the eve of a federal election, was so much money given to a single organization that sent out squads of volunteers to campaign for Liberals in Toronto's Chinatown in the last election?" Mr. Li asked.
Mr. Martin was taken aback. "Uh, this money is being given to the wider Chinese community. It's not being given to any single organization and we met with leaders right across the country on this," he said.
A total of 10 organizations representing hundreds of Chinese community groups backed the congress in its endorsement of the Liberal plan. But the council says the congress is affiliated with those groups.
The real issue for many Chinese Canadians seems to be this: What is so wrong with saying sorry? That is what Mr. Li asked Mr. Martin.
"You're dealing with a government policy that has been established for a long time," Mr. Martin said. "It's important to acknowledge how terrible an event this was."
The head tax is the No. 1 issue with listeners, Mr. Li said, and he believes polls will reflect that.
All of this is frustrating for Raymond Chan.
An "apology is not on," he said, explaining that to apologize would be tantamount to giving up immunity that has been granted to the government by the court.
Raymond Chan has had discussions with a wide range of ethnic groups seeking redress from the government. "Every group understands and accepts that legal argument," he said, which is why "everybody is giving up on apology and individual compensation."
But the Chinese Canadian National Council has been very vocal in its condemnation and has agitated community members, Raymond Chan said. "It's become a 'he say -- I say' issue and all of these people decided to ignore the legal reality."
And the council is not likely to end its fight soon -- especially if it is winning popular support.