Chinese community remains divided on importance of ‘head tax’ apology

The true origin of the formal apology is not lost on Chinese-British Columbians.

By: Mario Canseco

The government of B.C. six months ago officially and formally apologized to Chinese-Canadians for historical wrongs. The motion passed unanimously, following a three-month consultation period during which more than 1,300 residents were heard from.

The apology, while welcomed by most people, continues to be controversial. It seemed nonsensical to ask forgiveness for actions, such as immigration regulations, that were under the direct jurisdiction of the federal government. In any case, Ottawa had already apologized for the dreaded head tax in June 2006, and granted a payment of $20,000 to living Chinese head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers.

The provincial cabinet minister who was primarily responsible for the apology, Hong Kong-born Teresa Wat, acknowledges in the final report she was “shocked to learn about the historical wrongs imposed on the Chinese-Canadian community in British Columbia” when she arrived in Vancouver.

While painful and atrocious, it is not a chapter of our history that has been mentioned prominently in other countries.

In the context of the apology, it is important to review whether we are already a society that has achieved comprehensive fairness for newcomers. Recent research conducted by Insights West suggests this is not yet the case. Only 16 per cent of Chinese-British Columbians report never having encountered discrimination during their time in Canada, while 53 per cent say they have been treated unfairly in the workplace at least once because of their ethnicity.

So, how much does the formal apology matter? Insights West asked a representative sample of Chinese-British Columbians a series of questions about the apology. Respondents were split on what the action undertaken by the provincial government means to them, with 45 per cent saying the formal apology matters “a great deal” or “a moderate amount” and 47 per cent saying “not much” or “nothing at all.”

There is also a clear generational divide. Chinese-British Columbians aged 18-34, many of whom are the offspring of immigrant parents who never paid the head tax, are less likely to say that the apology matters to them (39 per cent) than their counterparts aged 35-54 (47 per cent) and those over the age of 55 (56 per cent).
Practically all Chinese-British Columbians (90 per cent) believe it was correct for the provincial government to issue this formal apology. However, three-in-five (61 per cent) decry the fact that the process did not contemplate any monetary compensation for the people who suffered these injustices.

Still, the most contentious aspect of the apology continues to be the circumstances under which it was first developed. The first time British Columbians came into contact with the concept of an official acknowledgment of “historical wrongs” was last year, as part of an intricate scheme later dubbed “quick wins,” a political strategy aimed at generating support for the governing B.C. Liberals among ethnic communities.

The true origin of the formal apology is not lost on Chinese-British Columbians. Two-thirds (68 per cent) believe it amounted to a ploy to garner votes for the Liberals, a view that reaches 74 per cent among those age 55 and over. The oldest Chinese-British Columbians, those who are more likely to say that the apology matters, are also more likely to regard it as a partisan exercise.

In her apology speech, Premier Christy Clark said: “We can’t undo the actions of the past.” Chinese-British Columbians appears to feel the same way. The community is certainly appreciative of the formal apology, but keenly aware that its origin was not pure.

Was it correct for the government of B.C. to apologize to the Chinese community?
Strongly agree: 59 per cent
Moderately agree: 31 per cent
Moderately disagree: 4 per cent
Strongly disagree: 1 per cent
Not sure: 5 per cent

Should the apology have included monetary compensation to the people who suffered these injustices?
Strongly agree: 32 per cent
Moderately agree: 29 per cent
Moderately disagree: 17 per cent
Strongly disagree: 8 per cent
Not sure: 14 per cent

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Photograph: Head Tax Receipt