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Head Tax

The Liberals bungle a great opportunity to do the right thing

by Brad Lee
Vancouver Sun 2005 Nov 19
Section:Observer - Page Number: C7

Let this go down in history: Paul MartinĄZĄZĄZs Liberals had an opportunity to correct past injustices involving decades of legislated racism against the Chinese in this country. Instead, they are bungling it.

In their headlong rush to purchase goodwill among voters ahead of an election, through multimillion-dollar deals in principle with the Ukrainians, the Italians and other groups close to political noliability settlements, the Liberals have cast aside the language and intent of true reconciliation and redress.

Witness Bill C-333, the so-called ĄZĄZĄZImmigrants of Chinese Origin Exclusionary Measures Recognition Act,ĄZĄZĄZ now wending its way toward third reading in Parliament, after breezing through final amendments at the Liberal-dominated standing committee on heritage. In just two meetings of the committee, a strange cabal of Liberals and Tories managed to do away with wording acknowledging the injustices of the head tax on Chinese immigrants, from 1885 to 1923, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1923-1947.)

Historians who review the implications of Bill C-333 on social justice will not see words like ĄZĄZĄZunjust,ĄZĄZĄZ ĄZĄZĄZdiscrimination,ĄZĄZĄZ ĄZĄZĄZracism,ĄZĄZĄZ nor any of their derivatives. Equally, they will see no evidence of ĄZĄZĄZreconciliation,ĄZĄZĄZ ĄZĄZĄZredress,ĄZĄZĄZ ĄZĄZĄZreparationsĄZĄZĄZ or ĄZĄZĄZcompensation.ĄZĄZĄZ Further investigation will show missteps by MartinĄZĄZĄZs Liberals in drafting amendments to the private memberĄZĄZĄZs bill simply to avoid any hint of government liability. The backward reasoning for watering down the text and intent of the bill is that the head tax and Exclusion Act were legal at the time so the government bears no actual responsibility for what happened.

(Never mind that the $500 my grandfather paid to enter Canada, along with the varying amounts from more than 82,000 other Chinese, had generated $23 million by 1923 for government coffers. In contrast, non-Chinese immigrants were offered a quarter-section of land to settle here.)

ĄZĄZĄZIn each case the attorney-general of Canada, on behalf of the government of Canada, disagreed with the arguments made on the basis that what was done during the two wars, and either under the War Measures Act in the case of the Germans and Italians, and under a variety of immigration acts in the case of the Chinese, that all those measures were perfectly legal,ĄZĄZĄZ according to Canadian Heritage legal counsel Michel Francoeur.

Would Canadian justices trying the cases of genocide in war-torn countries, or even historians looking back at the roots of the Holocaust, accept this reasoning? Adding insult to century-old injury, the Liberals have also insisted on naming a single group, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians formed in 1991 and hardly representative of the broader community, as the governmentĄZĄZĄZs sole partner on projects to recognize past ĄZĄZĄZexclusionary measures.ĄZĄZĄZ

All this because the NCCCĄZĄZĄZs leaders have agreed to the LiberalsĄZĄZĄZ position of ĄZĄZĄZno apology, no compensation.ĄZĄZĄZ As well, due diligence on this group has been set aside in favour of political expediency. Meanwhile, the Chinese Canadian National Council, which has registered more than 4,000 head-tax payers and their families since 1984, has been refused a seat at the reconciliation table.

Our historians may note misgivings about Bill C-333 voiced by MP Libby Davies (NDPĄZĄZĄZVancouver East) and echoed by Bloc Quebecois MPs Maka Kotto (Saint-Lambert) and Meili Faille (Vaudreuil-Soulanges.) ĄZĄZĄZAs far as saying we can only name one organization because theyĄZĄZĄZre the only ones who are willing to work with the government under the terms set by the government, I mean what is that about?ĄZĄZĄZ Davies asked. ĄZĄZĄZIs that how we do our business? That only if you agree beforehand that these are the terms you get to participate in the process. ThatĄZĄZĄZs not my understanding of parliamentary democracy.ĄZĄZĄZ

But with MartinĄZĄZĄZs Liberals it has always been about the money.

For weeks, officials at Canadian Heritage have been negotiating a $12.5-million payment to the NCCC in the matter of recognizing the imposition of exclusionary measures on Chinese Canadians. According to Chinese media, the plan is for the prime minister to travel to Vancouver, after the first ministersĄZĄZĄZ meeting in Kelowna next week to announce the deal at the NCCCĄZĄZĄZs national conference.

Similar to a redress package unveiled last weekend for redress of the Italian Canadians over internment during the Second World War, there will be much handshaking and many smiles for the cameras. Martin might even repeat his comment that, ĄZĄZĄZYou know as well as I do itĄZĄZĄZs not enough to remember the past ĄZĄZĄZ you have to learn from it.ĄZĄZĄZ

Problem is, the prime minister and his party are still foggy on the details.

Brad Lee is Chinese-Canadian. His family has been in Canada for five generations. He lives in Toronto.

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