Monday, June 10, 2002
TORONTO (CP) - Chinese immigrants forced to pay a discriminatory $500 head tax to enter Canada continued their fight for redress Monday with an appeal of a ruling that threw out their suit against the federal government.
An Ontario Superior Court judge struck down a class-action lawsuit on behalf of surviving immigrants last year, saying modern ethics can't be applied to historical laws. About 400 survivors and 4,000 of their descendants were asking for $1.2 billion in compensation and a formal apology.
Mary Eberts, the lawyer representing the survivors, argued in court Monday that the Canadian head tax flew in the face of the international norms of the day.
Between 1885 and 1923 the federal government collected $23 million - equal to about $1.2 billion in today's dollars - from about 81,000 Chinese immigrants under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
"This kind of racial discrimination was contradictory to customary international law," Eberts told the court as a handful of adults and children wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Redress Now" slogans looked on.
The panel of Appeal Court justices hearing the case said Monday that Canada's own domestic laws would supersede international law.
May Cheng, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council, said outside court that the Nazis also passed laws to justify their crimes during the Second World War.
"It's the duty of the court to determine whether these laws were a violation of our fundamental freedoms," Cheng said.
A 16-year-old dedicated to educating people about the head tax also attended the hearing and said outside the court she's optimistic the judges will do the right thing.
"My great uncle was imprisoned when he got to Canada because he didn't have the money," said Debbie Yam.
"Villagers sent it to him and then he lived in debt for many years, working to repay them and support his family. It's time to admit what happened and address it."
Cheng said regardless of the outcome of the case, her organization will continue to lobby the government for an apology. She said the appeal was launched partly to keep the issue on the public agenda.
"We are not going to go away," she said. "If Canada wants to promote a good human rights record, it first has to atone for the past and reconcile with the communities it wronged."
Kenda Gee, president of the Edmonton-based Head Tax and Exclusion Act Redress Committee, said the appeal launched in Toronto is likely just the beginning of a number of private and class-action lawsuits that he said will be filed on the matter.
He also said there Chinese groups are considering launching an international claim.
"That's not something the federal government would want to get dragged into," he said. "But these lawsuits were our only course of action, given the protracted period of negotiations and neglect the government has shown on this issue."
Chinese Canadians have been lobbying for redress since 1984.
Later this week, Vancouver-East MP Libby Davies will present a petition with 2,000 signatures to Parliament, calling on the government to enter negotiations with the country's Chinese community.
Gee said it's time to stop dragging heels while other countries are taking action.
In February, New Zealand became the first commonwealth country to issue a formal apology and enter into negotiations to compensate victims of its head tax on Chinese immigrants. Australia and the United States also imposed such taxes, but neither has issued a formal apology.
Progress has also been slow for other ethnic groups that have been working alongside Chinese Canadians for redress since the 80s.
Italian and Ukrainian groups seeking compensation for internment during the Second World War point to the agreement the Canadian government struck with Japanese Canadians, saying a precedent has been set for compensation.
In 1988, the Brian Mulroney government reached an agreement with Japanese Canadians whose property was confiscated during the Second World War. They were compensated for the crimes.
Mulroney offered an "unqualified" apology to Italian Canadians interned during the Second World War, but there was no formal apology on behalf of the government, nor compensation.
"The government set a precedent by apologizing and compensating the Japanese Canadians," said Jason Sordi, director of the Congress of Italian Canadians. "In the interest of fairness it needs to address claims by other ethnic communities."
The Ukrainian Canadian Council in Winnipeg continues to lobby for compensation for financial losses suffered by those interned during the First World War.
The group is working on a strategy to resolve the issue outside the courts. "It's important for future generations," said Rick Mantey, director of the Ukrainian Canadian Council.
"Be it a head tax or an internment, this kind of discrimination has profound affect on families and communities."
"Imagine how you would view the institutions of Canada if your grandfather was labelled an enemy and unfairly punished?"
c Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press