Prime Minister Stephen Harper will close a controversial chapter in Canadian history today by offering up to $20,000 to each of the people forced to pay the Chinese head tax who are still living.
The move will come as Mr. Harper offers a formal apology to the 81,000 Chinese immigrants who shelled out a total of $23-million to enter Canada. A compensation package is also expected to be offered to widowed spouses of those who paid the tax, while a source added there will be a so-called national recognition program established for educational and cultural activities. Estimates of the cost of the overall program varied, although one source said it would top $30-million.
Sources said the government has identified only 29 surviving victims of the tax. There are approximately another 250 or so widows.
The government expects that a few more may come forward at a later date.
"There's no way to determine the total payout," said the source. "There may be 20 people that nobody's ever heard of who eventually come forward."
One source said the government's package is based on one paid to Japanese Canadians who had been interned during the Second World War. That package saw payments of $21,000 to each of those affected still living. Another $12-million was set aside for the educational, social and cultural well-being of the community.
The source said government officials had originally agreed to a compensation package of $18,000 a person, but raised that figure recently to $20,000.
"Not everybody is going to be happy with it," the source said.
One Conservative Party source said the government was paying as much as it could afford without incurring the anger of its conservative base of supporters, many of whom don't believe redress should be paid beyond those who were directly affected.
Chinese immigrants began coming to Canada in the late 1850s during the rush for gold in British Columbia, but the real influx came between 1881 and 1885 to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Soon after, the Canadian government imposed a head tax of $50 per person to limit immigration. The tax was later increased to $500, a massive amount at the time. The tax had the effect of splitting families and preventing wives and children from joining their husbands and fathers in Canada, many of whom had to take out loans to pay the tax.
The tax was paid until 1923, when Canada banned Chinese immigration. That act was repealed in 1947.
Mr. Harper will make his speech in front of a group of Chinese Canadians who have taken the train from as far away as British Columbia to be in attendance. The vast majority are descendants of those who paid the tax, although there will be a few surviving individuals as well.
Heritage Minister Bev Oda and Jason Kenney, the Prime Minister's parliamentary secretary, crossed the country to meet with individuals of the Chinese community to discuss the redress package.
Ms. Oda hinted yesterday that compensation would be paid out.
"An apology will be made in the House and we will also be addressing appropriate acknowledgment," she said in the House of Commons.
The government also plans to put aside $2.5-million in redress funds for members of other cultural communities.
Those communities include Canadians of Italian and of Ukrainian origin, although the money is not expected to be spent on individual compensation, rather the cash will go toward community programs and education. Sources said Mr. Harper is also expected to acknowledge other events, including the turning back of a ship carrying hundreds of Sikhs, the Komagata Maru, in Vancouver in 1914.
The money is part of a $25-million fund put aside by previous Liberal governments to deal with redress in a number of cultural communities.