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Should we pay for the sins of Canada’s past?

by Archives March 2, 2005

As Canadians, most of us are deeply proud of our heritage and there are few reasons for us to feel otherwise. However, if we want to be openly proud of people and events that have made our country so great, it’s our responsibility to acknowledge the darker aspects of our history.

Discussing the Chinese Head Tax, which was in affect from 1885-1923, may not lead to any great revelations for a lot of people. Some of us know all the gory details, whether it be from family, friends or a professor that actually has some sense of what it means to teach an objective course. Naturally there are some that may not be aware that for almost four decades Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a $500 fee to enter the country and work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Unjust and disappointing as the head tax was, it wasn’t the end of deplorable treatment toward Chinese people. In 1924 the Exclusion Act was introduced to prevent further Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. That act was finally repealed in 1947. Don’t worry, the history lesson will stop there for now.

The quick background check is required to be able to put in proper context the importance of the decision made by the Montreal city council last week to adopt a resolution requesting the federal government provide redresses and apologies to those who lived through the era. The support is unprecedented for the city and is an extreme rarity throughout rest of the country.

The country’s reluctance should be considered surprising for a nation that prides itself on being multicultural and one of the world’s greatest promoters of equality. That’s even after taking into consideration our dirty laundry from the past.

Chinese immigrants paid $23 million to the Canadian government for an opportunity to come to this land and hopefully bask in the wealth being provided by the western Gold Rush. For this mistake they were exploited to their full extent.

If this resolution continues to gain momentum then far more editorials and opinions will be written taking different stances on the issue. But there have already been enough published to make this conclusion about those opposed to redress. They can’t help but come off as ignorant and greedy.

This isn’t a topic where one has to be concerned with making false assumptions about our government’s policy on an issue, every year it becomes clearer that they are just waiting. Waiting, because every year that passes there are fewer people still alive who were subjugated to these policies, and fewer people that can bring that first hand account to the redress movement. Does it really seem implausible that our government is just waiting for the issue to literally die out?

There’s an argument out there that since our parents and grandparents had nothing to do with the Head Tax, we shouldn’t be obliged to pay into any reparations. Another part of this argument is that just because most of the original head tax payers aren’t around anymore, that doesn’t mean that their descendants should receive it in their place.

Well, here’s a quick reality check for holders of that opinion. The Head Tax and Exclusion Act didn’t just have an impact on those who paid it. The combination of these policies ripped many families apart for as much as 25 years and they wouldn’t be reunited until 1947 onward. Over that quarter of a century families continued to grow but weren’t ever really complete.

Then there’s the fact that it wouldn’t take anything more than a grade one math student to figure out that a population of 30 million wouldn’t have much trouble repaying a debt of $23 million. If that’s the cost of defending our reputation as a society of unity and equal opportunity, how many of us would really have a problem paying into it?

Unfortunately, we know very well that this has little, if anything, to do with monetary value as far the government is concerned. We’ve been a fully functioning country for a few years now and it’s about time that we grow up and say we’re sorry for our country’s past sins. And that’s not just for the Chinese population; it’s for the self-respect every Canadian.

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