The Chinese head tax was levied on Chinese immigration to Canada between 1885 and 1923, under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885). With few exceptions, Chinese people had to pay $50 (later raised to $100, then $500) to come to Canada. This anti-Chinese legislation was the first in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic origin. When the tax was removed from the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, Chinese immigration was banned until 1947.
Although the first major wave of Chinese immigrants began with the 1858 gold rush, more than 15,000 Chinese labourers arrived from 1881 to 1885 for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald acknowledged the necessity of Chinese labour, but as construction of the railway neared completion, he willingly yielded to prejudiced and discriminatory politicians, trade unionists and public opinion. In 1884, Macdonald appointed the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration to investigate the restriction of Chinese immigrants (see Royal Commissions).
Commissioners Sir Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau and John Hamilton Gray heard testimonies from 51 witnesses, most of whom gave negative reports. The only testimonials from Chinese people were provided by two consular officials from San Francisco, California.Other nations’ immigration policies were investigated by the commission, including the American Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and Chinese immigration law in New Zealand (1881) and Victoria, Australia (1855), both of which levied a £10 poll tax on Chinese immigrants.
In 1885, the commissioners concluded that there was little evidence to support the negative claims against the Chinese and that Chinese immigration was in fact beneficial to the development of British Columbia. Still, their recommendations were aligned with the majority of witnesses. Instead of outright exclusion, Chapleau and Gray called for moderate legislation to restrict Chinese immigration — specifically, a $10 entry fee for Chinese immigrants. Money raised by such taxation was to be spent on a health inspector to examine all Chinese passengers for diseases, and the creation of a joint tribunal that would closely monitor and control the lives of Chinese people in Canada.
The Canadian government quickly enacted the Chinese Immigration Act on 20 July 1885, which included a $50 head tax. This amount was deliberately set to be a financial hardship. Based on the findings of the Royal Commission, the average Chinese labourer earned $300 a year and saved a modest $43 after living expenses.
By 1902, it was clear that the head tax had not diminished Chinese immigration — even after it doubled from $50 to $100. A second inquiry, the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration, recommended that the head tax be increased to $500. This last fee, instituted by Parliament in 1903, was the equivalent of two years’ salary or the purchase of two homes.
Chinese Immigration Act
The Chinese Immigration Act required that Chinese migrants pay a head tax of $50 to come to Canada. (Diplomats, government representatives, tourists, merchants, scientists and students were exempt.) The Chinese were the only group who had to pay the head tax (see Immigration Policy).
The Act contained other restrictions. Ships were permitted only one Chinese passenger for every 50 tons of the ship’s total weight — compared with one person per 2 tons for ships carrying European immigrants. Entrance was denied to Chinese immigrants with leprosy or infectious diseases and to any known sex workers. All Chinese residents, whether naturalized or Canadian-born, had to pay a fee of $0.50 to register with local authorities.
There were many amendments to the Act. In 1887, Chinese women married to non-Chinese men were exempted from the head tax, as well as any Chinese person travelling through Canada by railway en route to another country. An 1892 amendment required that any Chinese person who temporarily left the country register with immigration authorities. In 1908, students were no longer exempted from the head tax. In 1917, immigration officials gained the right to arrest any Chinese person believed to be in Canada illegally. In 1921, Chinese people leaving Canada without registering and anyone away for more than two years had to pay the head tax upon his or her return.
The head tax was in effect for 38 years (1885–1923) and approximately 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax.In 1906, Newfoundland, still a British colony, passed the Act Respecting the Immigration of Chinese Persons, commonly known as the Newfoundland Chinese Immigration Act, which introduced a $300 head tax. Newfoundland’s head tax remained in effect until Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949.
Despite these anti-Chinese immigration laws, the Chinese population increased from 4,383 to 39,587 between 1881 and 1921. In response, the federal government resorted to a drastic solution. On 1 July 1923, the head tax was abolished and the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned all Chinese immigrants, except for a handful of merchants, diplomats and students. While Canadians celebrated Dominion Day (now, Canada Day) on 1 July, the Chinese communities in Canada boycotted any festivities for what they regarded as “Humiliation Day.” The Act was in effect for 24 years, from 1923 until its repeal in 1947.
Head Tax Certificates
Chinese immigrants were issued certificates as proof of head-tax payment from 1885 until 1949, the year Newfoundland ended its head tax. Officially classified as C.I.5 certificates — C.I. meaning “Chinese Immigration” — these documents identified names, ports and dates of arrival, and amounts paid. Anyone travelling to China needed an official stamp on the certificate to re-enter Canada. Otherwise, returning travellers had to pay the head tax. Although the certificate was amended at least four times, the most significant revision added a photograph in 1912 as a means to curb illegal immigration.
A number of other C.I. certificates were used. For instance, the C.I.6 certificate was issued to Chinese immigrants who had arrived before the head tax. Chinese people, whether born overseas or in Canada, required the C.I.9 certificate for temporary travel outside of Canada.
General Registers of Chinese Immigration
Details of all Chinese people arriving from 1885 until 1949 were handwritten in large ledger books. There were 19 columns of information, including name; port or place where registered; date of registration; amount of head tax; sex; age; place of birth; profession or occupation; name of vessel or train upon arrival; and, physical marks. No other immigrant group was documented to this degree.
The Newfoundland Register of Arrivals and Outward Registrations had two lists: one for records of entry, the other for departures. Chinese immigrants were issued NF 63 certificates from 1910 to 1949. Anyone leaving Newfoundland temporarily or permanently was issued a C.I.9 certificate and recorded on the list for departures.
The Port of New Westminster Register of Chinese Immigration, 1887–1908 — the only port register known to have survived — lists Chinese immigrants who paid the head tax at the port of New Westminster, British Columbia.
Impact: Chinese Community Life
Institutional racism was perpetuated by the Chinese Immigration Act and more than 100 other policies that denied Chinese people the right to vote, practise law or medicine, hold public office, seek employment on public works or own crown land, among other restrictions. As a result of such prejudice and discrimination — echoed by politicians, the public and the press — the Chinese community suffered low social standing. Meanwhile, the most devastating consequence of the Act was its impact on family life.
The majority of the Chinese population were men whose wives and children remained in China. While Europeans were encouraged to come to Canada with offers of free land, the head tax made it financially impossible (save for a few instances) to bring families from China. Other significant roadblocks were the cost of passage and cultural traditions. Women were expected to stay behind to look after their children, parents and extended family members, as well as ancestral burial sites. In 1911, the ratio of Chinese men to women was 28 to 1, the highest gender imbalance among any ethnic group in Canada up until the end of the Second World War.
These men lived in what became known as a bachelor society. Their meager savings were sent regularly to their families in China, who endured decades of poverty, starvation, banditry and civil wars. The head tax was unsuccessful in deterring Chinese immigration; however, it was successful in preventing family life and stunting the growth of the Chinese population in Canada.
Apology and Redress
Advocacy for redress of Canada’s anti-Chinese immigration policies began after the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947. But it was the simple act of two elderly head-tax payers that sparked a decades-long campaign for redress. In 1983, Dak Leon Mark and Shack Yee asked their local member of Parliament (MP) for a refund of their $500 head tax payments; however, the request was turned down.
Two national organizations, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) and later the National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC) put pressure on the government to acknowledge and address its history of anti-Chinese immigration policy. While both organizations’ objectives were the same, their demands were different. The NCCC wanted an apology and funds for an educational foundation, while the CCNC sought a parliamentary acknowledgement, an apology and symbolic financial redress for the 4,000 head-tax payers, their spouses and descendants, who had registered with CCNC to lobby on their behalf.
Additional organizations, protests and events rallied Chinese Canadians across the country. In 1988, the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to acknowledge and redress the injustices suffered by Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (see Internment). Years later, the Prime Minister attempted to settle other redress claims, but these symbolic offers were rejected by the Chinese, Italian and Ukrainian Canadian communities. A class-action lawsuit, filed in 2000 by Shack Jang Mak (a head-tax payer) and the widow and son of head-tax payer Guang Foo Lee, was struck down in the Ontario Superior Court. Prompted by a submission filed by Chinese Canadian organizations, United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diène, recommended that Canada redress the head tax in a 2004 report.
That same year, MP Inky Mark introduced private member’s Bill C-333, which expressed sorrow for the head tax and other immigration restrictions from 1885 to 1947. The bill opened negotiations with the NCCC for the development of public education initiatives. However, the CCNC, head-tax payers and their families were excluded from the discussions.
The Liberal government dissolved in late 2005, and Bill C-333 did not become law. In the months leading up to the 2006 federal election, the head tax was a significant campaign issue. Prime Minister Paul Martin made a personal apology on Fairchild Radio (which airs Chinese-language programming); however, it was not an official apology, as expected by the Chinese community. The Conservative Party pledged to redress the head tax if elected.
On 22 June 2006, newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons to head-tax payers, their families and the Chinese Canadian community. He pledged “symbolic payments to living head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers.” A commitment was made to establish “funds to help finance community projects aimed at acknowledging the impact of past wartime measures and immigration restrictions on the Chinese Canadian community and other ethnocultural communities.”
Six days later, Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams apologized for the $300 head tax imposed by the former Dominion of Newfoundland.The City of New Westminster apologized in 2010 for its past exclusionary policies, and BC premier Christy Clark made an apology in 2014 for the more than 100 anti-Chinese laws and policies of the past.
Fewer than 50 head-tax payers were among the 785 people who received payments of $20,000 from the federal government in 2009.Many sons and daughters of head-tax payers continue the redress campaign for family members excluded from the 2006 settlement.
The head tax was enacted to restrict immigration after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build an emerging nation’s transcontinental railway. British Columbia not only benefited by receiving 40 per centof the country’s $23 million in head-tax revenues, but also placated its anti-Chinese politicians and citizens in the process. The paradox was that the discriminatory legislation to keep out the Chinese in fact increased their levels of immigration. Ultimately, the head tax was the final step towards outright exclusion.
In 2008, the Government of Canada’s Community Historical Recognition Program was established through consultation with Chinese, Italian, Ukrainian, Jewish and Indo-Canadian communities to educate Canadians about the hardships resulting from immigration restrictions and wartime measures. A $5 million fund was allocated for projects about Chinese immigration restrictions. The 33 projects of art, music, film, literature, theatre, oral history and photography that resulted include Lost Years: A People’s Struggle for Justice; The Ties That Bind and, Newfoundland Head Tax and the Chinese Community.