Immigration: Head Tax

Head tax certificate

Head tax certificate of Jew Chew Gee.

The immigration official had just freshly glued his photo on to the document, impressed a seal on it, and taken fifty dollars cash for the Head Tax that Chinese immigrants had to pay to the Dominion of Canada.

from The Jade Peony, p. 57, by Wayson Choy




In 1923, the federal Liberal government prohibited Chinese immigration completely with the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act. Not only did the Chinese become the only people that Canada specifically excluded on the basis of race, over the next 25 years, other laws against the Chinese were passed.

Because most occupations excluded Chinese, many opened their own restaurant and laundry businesses. Since laws in British Columbia prohibited Chinese from hiring white workers, most Chinese businesses became Chinese-only.

Even before the CPR was completed, many among the white population feared that the unemployed Chinese workers would not only take jobs away from the general population, but ultimately make their permanent residences in Canada by bringing their wives and children to settle in Canada.

The result was the 1885 Act to Restrict and Regulate Chinese Immigration and its head tax system. It stipulated that Chinese immigrants had to pay $10 for the right to land in Canada. Directed at not only Chinese workers already in Canada, but ultimately to future Chinese immigration, the tax was later raised to $50 in 1896, $100 in 1901, and finally to $500 in 1903.

Life was even more difficult for the Chinese than it was for other Canadians during the Great Depression. Because the Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act did not permit immigration from China, Chinese males had to endure these hardships alone, without the companionship of their wives and children.

After many years of organized calls for an official Canadian government public apology and redress to the historic Head tax, the Canadian government announced an official apology on June 22, 2006, in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech called the Tax a "grave injustice."
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