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Will there be redress? Chinese Canadians, descendants of those forced to pay the odious "head tax" to be admitted to Canada, demonstrated on Parliament Hill this week. But, so far, they've been unable to sway the Liberal government.

And yet their cause is compelling. Just read the 1902 report of our own Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration. The commissioners saw the contempt of white British Columbians for Chinese labourers: "The majority of working men will not, if they can avoid it, work with Chinamen; they feel that they would be degraded in the eyes of their associates by so doing."

Did the commissioners then deplore this racism? No. "They are unfit for full citizenship and are permitted to take no part in municipal or provincial government. Upon this point there was entire unanimity. They are not and will not become citizens in any sense of the term, as we understand it. They are so nearly allied to a servile class that they are obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state."

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Their recommendation? "This class of immigration . . . from a Canadian standpoint is injurious, and in the interest of the nation any further immigration ought to be prohibited."

This report was not an aberration. In 1885, just as the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was being driven home, a royal commission on Chinese immigration had recommended discouraging Chinese immigration by requiring each immigrant to pay a head tax of $50, a very large sum for those driven out of China by utter poverty. That attitude animated the first Chinese Immigration Act (1885). Then, in 1900, finding that $50 was not a sufficient deterrent, Parliament raised the head tax to $100.

Two years later, the royal commission decided that none was best: "We find that the increase in the capitation tax from $50 to $100 is ineffective and inadequate. Your Commissioners are of opinion that the further immigration of Chinese labourers into Canada ought to be prohibited. . . . That in the meantime and until this can be obtained the capitation tax should be raised to $500."

From 1903 until 1923, every Chinese immigrant had to pay $500 to enter the country. The Bank of Canada, taking into account inflation but not interest, estimates that, in 1914, $500 was the equivalent of $8,340.28 today.

In 1883, John A. Macdonald defended keeping Chinese immigrants -- until the CPR was finished. "It will be all very well to exclude Chinese labour, when we can replace it with white labour." In 1900, Wilfrid Laurier said: "In my opinion, there is not much room for the Chinaman in Canada. He displaces a good Canadian, or a good British subject."

Their country of adoption rejected them. Paid less than half the amount of white workers who resented them for undercutting wages, about 1,500 Chinese labourers building the CPR lost their lives though accidents or disease. In 1907, a major anti-Chinese riot in Vancouver provoked another royal commission.

They were stripped of the right to vote in B.C. and Saskatchewan, were forbidden access to the professions and work on Crown lands or for provincial or municipal governments, and were deprived of welfare benefits. In three provinces (including Ontario), white women could not work in Chinese-owned businesses. In Vancouver, where most lived, covenants restricted them to the ghetto.

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On July 1, 1923, an amendment to the act excluded all Chinese immigrants.

Only Chinese immigrants were subjected to a head tax. Their mistreatment was not precipitated by war or fear of a fifth column, but by pure racism. Canada has yet to come to terms with this past. We still live off the avails of the blood, sweat and tears of those generations. We, as a country, owe redress. wjohnson@globeandmail.ca

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