Chinese Head Tax

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity today to rise in the House to speak to the issue put forward in Bill C-333. I would like to thank the member for Durham for bringing it forward. I also would like to recognize that the member for Dauphin--Swan River--Marquette had originally put forward this bill in an earlier Parliament.

In speaking to the bill today, first, I want to say that the NDP agrees that this is a very critical issue. We are talking about a history of 62 years of legislated racism in the country, from 1885 to 1947, when Chinese Canadians had to pay the $50 head tax and then between the period of 1923 and 1947, when they had to face the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited immigration from China to Canada. We are talking about a very dark mark on Canada's history.

I would point out that if the head tax today were repaid to the approximately 81,000 people who paid it, we would be talking about $23 million. If that head tax today were put into a 2005 dollar value, it would be about $30,000 per person. We begin to get a sense of the enormity of that head tax and the financial cost and burden it imposed on families and on workers who came to Canada during that period.

As was noted by my hon. colleague from Burnaby--Douglas, I also want to recognize the work of Margaret Mitchell, the former member of Parliament who first raised this in the House around 1984. It was as a result of a radio program in Vancouver in the Chinese Canadian community when Hanson Lau put out a call, which is very well documented in the film In the Shadow of Gold Mountain by Karen Cho, a wonderful film that gives the history of this issue. It was because of that radio program that members of the community came forward to Margaret Mitchell and asked her to raise it in the House, which of course she did. She raised it many times in the House with really no response from the government of day, and never since that time.

I myself put forward a motion in Parliament in March of 2001. I reintroduced that motion in this Parliament. The bill before us, while its intentions are good, does not deal with the issue as it is being debated and how it is being articulated in the whole community. Unfortunately, the bill does not reflect the debate and the position taken in the whole community.

We know for example that the Chinese Canadian National Council had an important class action case, with a number of individuals seeking compensation. Although that case was not won, the decision in July 2001 was important. The decision from the Ontario Superior Court was that Parliament should consider providing redress for Chinese Canadians who paid the head tax or who were adversely affected by the various Chinese immigration acts.

I know the CCNC has advocated for about 4,000 claimants who want to see this issue dealt with. They want to see an official apology by the Government of Canada. They want to see a negotiation process take place whereby the issue of individual compensation can also be addressed.

Unfortunately, the bill before us today does not deal with that aspect.

Regrettably the member for Durham did not answer the questions put forward by the member for Burnaby--Douglas. We want to know why the bill singles out one organization when other organizations like the CCNC have been very active on this file. Why would the bill only specify one organization ? Why would we have a bill that really does not reflect the position of the whole community?

At a press conference today, members of the CCNC made it clear, that in its current form the bill is not supportable. We want to get some indication from the member about these concerns as we approach the vote and what may happen in terms of the bill going forward to the committee where we would have an opportunity to look at some amendments to reflect what is going on in the community.

My motion, for example, talked about establishing a framework that would include a parliamentary acknowledgement of the injustice of these measures. It would include an official apology by the government to individuals and their families for the suffering and hardship caused. It would include individual financial compensation as well as community driven compensation through, for example, an anti-racism advocacy and educational trust fund. We need to look at these elements.

For example, Mr. Daniel Lee, an 84 year old World War II veteran lives in East Vancouver. In a recent story in the local press, he said that while he was still alive, he would like to receive one thing from the federal government, and that was an apology for the imposition of the head tax on his father and grandfather when they arrived from China.

We also have Mr. Quan, who is now in his nineties and is one of the survivors. We should recognize that the group is getting smaller and smaller. As people become elderly, it becomes a very pressing issue. I know that Mr. Quan as well has maintained a constant campaign and struggle to have the issue recognized, to have an apology, to have redress and to deal with the issue of compensation.

I come to what is the position of the government. I know there has been a lot of debate about this. There is a concern about the precedents that will be set. The fact is we already have precedents in the country. The Japanese-Canadian redress is one where an historical injustice, based on a racist legislation or policies, has been recognized. It has been formally acknowledged, an apology given and redress and compensation provided.

What is important with the bill is that the government deal with the issue on its merits. What we have heard from the parliamentary secretary has not given us a lot of hope that the issue will move forward. I would implore the government, from our perspective in the NDP where we have worked on the issue now for more than two decades, and say to it that this really demands a response. It demands that the government be proactive.

The most important first step is for the government to sit down with representatives of the individuals and families involved and different organizational representatives in the community to begin a negotiation process. It is not up to me to say what it should be or what the compensation should look like, whatever it might be. The process has to be entered into in good faith between the Government of Canada and the community.

Negotiation means that we have to look at the issues. We have to look at where we can agree on certain aspects and what are the principles. If we had a commitment from the Liberal government that this could happen, people would see that as a step forward.

This Speech in Parliament was posted on February 21, 2005
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