Skip to main content

Jack Chung holds the 1914 head-tax certificate of his father, Sik Kan Chung.Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

To the surprise of those who fought for years to win a government apology and redress, a half-million dollars aimed at educating Canadians about the discriminatory head tax paid by Chinese immigrants was never spent and returned to government coffers.

Jason Kenney, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister, recently celebrated the end of the Community Historical Recognition Program. Left unmentioned that day was the fact that $500,000 of the $5-million destined for Chinese Canadian projects had not been spent. Now that the program has ended, the remaining money has been clawed back into government revenue, according to the ministry. It will never be used for its intended purpose.

That comes as unwelcome news to Susan Eng, one of the Chinese Canadians who campaigned for the government apology and who sat on the citizen advisory committee that allocated the $5-million. The committee did not know that 10 per cent of the money had not been spent.

"That's not what you do with redress money," said Ms. Eng, a lawyer and vice-president for advocacy at CARP, a group that lobbies on behalf of those over 50. "If that's the final number then I say we should spend it, and there are lots of good ways to spend it."

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Kenney said he won't consider making the remaining $500,000 available again. He thought the program was a huge success and well-received in the community. More than 30 Chinese-Canadian projects were funded under the CHRP. But one organization that received a large grant didn't file the required paperwork in time, he said, while a few others underspent their budgets.

"These projects don't go on in perpetuity, they have an end date," Mr. Kenney said.

From 1885 to 1923, 97,000 Chinese immigrants to Canada were forced to pay a discriminatory head tax to enter the country. That tax, at times equivalent to more than a year's earnings, was a major source of revenue for government in an era before personal income tax. It was equivalent to $1.5-billion in today's funds, according to University of British Columbia historian Henry Yu. And from 1923 to 1947, an act of Parliament blocked Chinese entry almost entirely.

It's a shameful period in the country's history, one that became a hot political issue in the 2006 election. During the campaign, Stephen Harper promised an apology and compensation for the head tax, something the Liberals had resisted while in government. Just a few months after taking office, Mr. Harper delivered. He issued a formal government apology and offered $20,000 in compensation to those who paid the head tax or those whose spouse paid the tax. As Prof. Yu points out, it doesn't take an actuary to realize that few people who immigrated before 1923 were still living more than 80 years later. Still, nearly $16-million in compensation payments were made.

A key victory for those who campaigned for head-tax redress was funding for what became the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) to educate Canadians about this period of history, which Mr. Harper promised in his 2006 apology.

Brad Lee, a writer and researcher who was part of that redress campaign, said he believes the CHRP funds are seen as "blood money" by many Chinese Canadians and shouldn't be pocketed by government.

"Redress funds when they are promised must be paid out in full because they're part of an official apology," Mr. Lee said. "This money allows us to reclaim our history and tell it to other Canadians so we can recognize that these blemishes … are part of our common history and we can move on together."

Ana Curic, spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney, said the government intended to spend all $5-million but the Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality, recipients of a grant worth nearly $400,000, did not file the necessary paperwork.

"We wanted to spend the money but it just didn't happen," Ms. Curic said.

The CHRP spent nearly $13.5-million on projects that also included other ethnocultural groups that suffered historic discrimination or internment.

Wesley Lowe, a Vancouver filmmaker, chaired the community advisory committee that approved various projects for CHRP funding. Those projects included several documentary films and a major digital archive led by Prof. Yu at UBC. Mr. Lowe said he wishes all the money had been distributed. There are many worthy projects that deserve a larger audience, he said.

"My understanding is that it was supposed to be $5-million and we recommended $5-million worth of projects," Mr. Lowe said.

Prof. Yu said that the program would have been well-served to have an additional round of funding because timelines were so tight that they required groups to spend all their money in 18 to 24 months.

"When redress was done for [the wartime internment of] Japanese Canadians in 1988, there was a long-term fund. It was not, 'Let's do a bunch of things in 18 months or two years and then walk away,' particularly because the mandate was to educate and make sure students learn about it. You have to do something sustainable," Prof. Yu said.

"You can't make right something that happened 100 years ago, but what you can do is address the legacies of that wrong. That's where education is crucial."




The value of the head tax collected between 1885 and 1923 from 97,000 Chinese immigrants to Canada in today's funds, according to historian Henry Yu.


Amount promised for Chinese Canadian community projects under the Community Historical Recognition Program.


Amount of money never to be used for its intended purpose, clawed back into government revenue.

Source: UBC and Government of Canada

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles