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Monday, June 06, 2005

Redressing the Chinese head tax

Globe and Mail - BC Section
Monday, June 6, 2005 Page S1

His father paid $500 to come to Canada. Almost 100 years later, Gim Foon
Wong wants an apology. PETER KENNEDY writes

By PETER KENNEDY

VANCOUVER -- Eighty-two-year-old Gim Foon Wong, sporting cuts and bruises
from a recent motorcycle mishap, will resume his cross-Canada bike trip
today in a bid to prove that it is never too late to put right an injustice.

Despite a delay caused by yesterday's pelting rain in Vancouver, Mr. Wong
hopes to be in Ottawa by July 1 to press the case for a redress of an
immigration tax that cost 81,000 Chinese immigrants $23-million between 1885
and 1923.

Describing himself to reporters as a "tough old bugger," he is making the
trip on a maroon-coloured Honda touring bike, with his son, Jeffrey, riding
behind in the family motorhome.

"We demand an apology for this," said Mr. Wong, who had a chipped tooth and
bruises to his nose after his motorcycle fell over at a gas station in
Victoria last Friday.

A veteran of the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he
wants Ottawa to consider a partial refund of the head tax imposed on Chinese
immigrants after the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.

Thousands of Chinese workers were brought to Canada to provide cheap and
reliable labour when the railway was being built. The government imposed a
head tax on Chinese immigrants; the rate was initially $50, and later was
raised to $500.

When the tax failed to stop the flow of immigration, Ottawa passed the
Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. It banned all Chinese immigrants from
entering Canada, with a limited number of exceptions. It was repealed in
1947.

During those 24 years of exclusion, Chinese families were separated and
generations of men were condemned to a life of isolation and loneliness. The
economic and political development of Chinese communities in Canada was also
impeded, says the Toronto-based Chinese-Canadian National Council, which is
sponsoring Mr. Wong.

Aside from the racist overtones, the tax remains a sore point with
Chinese-Canadians, in part because $500 was such a lot of money then.

"It would have been enough to buy two houses in Vancouver's Chinatown," said
Sid Tan, a Vancouver-based member of the CCNC. In today's dollars, the
$23-million paid out by Chinese immigrants would be worth $1.7-billion.

"I think the Canadian government did things that weren't fair," said Charlie
Quan, who, at 98, is one of a handful of Vancouver-based Chinese immigrants
who paid the tax and is still alive to talk about it.

"Other nationalities came to Canada and didn't have to pay anything," he
said. He worked as a waiter and dishwasher in Regina after coming to Canada
from Canton in 1923.

Mr. Wong, a native of Vancouver, didn't have to pay the tax himself. But
coming up with $500 in head-tax money meant his father had to wait 13 years
before he could afford to bring his mother over from China after he had
emigrated to Canada in 1906.

That is why Mr. Wong has been involved in the campaign for restitution since
it began in 1983 after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was
passed.

He will carry a petition calling on Ottawa to return some of the $23-million
in head taxes collected from immigrants and their families by paying $21,000
to each surviving head-tax payer or spouse.

The petition also asks Ottawa to establish a process for negotiating
individual financial compensation with descendents of head-tax payers.

But as he prepared to set off from his Burnaby, B.C., home, he was more
preoccupied with the challenges he will face on the trip.

"My biggest fear is getting in an accident," said Mr. Wong, who has been
riding motorcycles since 1938.

He plans to spend between one and three hours on his bike before stopping
for a nap.

En route to Ottawa, he will be protected from the elements by a black
motorcycle helmet and a jacket with built-in elbow pads.

Saying he is a "slow eater," Mr. Wong plans to sustain himself along the way
on a diet of canned salmon, tuna fish and rice.

"I like to cook my own veggies," he said.

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