Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a nation's regrets for "the racist actions of our past" yesterday as he formally apologized for the imposition of a punitive head tax on Chinese-Canadian immigrants between 1885 and 1923.
With six elderly head-tax payers and hundreds of their family members packing the Commons visitors galleries, Mr. Harper apologized to a community that came to Canada in large numbers to build the railway that bound the nation together, but then tried to exclude them from the country when it was completed.
Mr. Harper's apology was accompanied by the announcement of "symbolic payments" of $20,000 to the roughly 20 surviving head-tax payers and about 200 living spouses of head-tax payers now deceased.
But for some who have campaigned for redress for years, there was disappointment when the government said later there will be no payments to the children of head-tax payers.
The Prime Minister noted that more than 15,000 Chinese immigrants worked to build the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1881 and 1885, and more than 1,000 died during the construction. "But from the moment the railway was completed, Canada turned its back on these men," he said.
In 1885, a $50 head tax was imposed on Chinese-Canadian immigrants to deter them from coming to Canada, a tax that eventually rose to the then-enormous sum of $500. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act effectively barred immigrants from China from coming to Canada, until it was repealed in 1947.
"We acknowledge the high cost of the head tax meant that many family members were left behind in China, never to be reunited, or that families lived apart and in some cases in extreme poverty for years. We also recognize that our failure to truly acknowledge these historical injustices has prevented many in the community from seeing themselves as fully Canadian," Mr. Harper said.
He added later: "Our deep sorrow over the racist actions of our past will nurture an unwavering commitment to build a better life for all Canadians."
In the Commons gallery, 84-year-old Gim Wong, the son of a head-tax payer, wearing the same Royal Canadian Air Force uniform he wore in the Second World War, saluted as Mr. Harper's speech ended.
He praised Mr. Harper and his government later for the apology he has waited decades to hear. "When did you ever see a politician that sincere and that patient?" he asked.
But Mr. Wong also said that real redress has to include compensation for the children of head-tax payers. The government will make payments to about 200 people when 81,000 paid the tax, he said. "That's not compensation."
Not everyone shared that sentiment -- and some said they did not want to mar a historic day by discussing what else needs to be done.
The Chinese Canadian communities have campaigned for a redress package for decades, and although Paul Martin's Liberal government offered a package of commemoration programs -- such as museum exhibits and educational programs -- it did not offer a formal apology, fearing it would make Ottawa liable for lawsuits.
"I've never felt better in my life," said James Pon, 88, who arrived in Canada at age five with his mother in 1922.
His father paid $1,000 to have his family join him in Canada, and spent 17 years digging out of debt. He was forced to farm out his son at the age of 12 to work in restaurants for 50 cents a day.
"I've waited a long, long time for this," Mr. Pon said yesterday.
The Conservatives announced that Ottawa will spend $34-million on programs for various groups that suffered discrimination, such as Ukrainian Canadians interned in the First World War. Most of that sum is to essentially continue the Liberals' commemoration program, with a new $10-million "national recognition" program added.