Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered on Thursday a long-awaited formal apology to the Chinese community for the racist head tax levied more than 120 years ago.
"On behalf of the people and government of Canada, we offer a full apology to Chinese-Canadians for the head tax and express our deepest sorrow for the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants," Harper said at the House of Commons with a few aged survivors of the head-tax era looking on from the gallery.
The head tax, ranging from 50 Canadian dollars to 500, was assessed on Chinese immigrants from 1885 until 1923 when immigration from China was banned entirely. Canada opened its doors again to Chinese immigrants in 1947.
Harper said his government will offer symbolic payments to living head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers to give substantive meaning to the apology.
The government will also fund community projects, he said, without specifying on the amount of the money.
He acknowledged the contributions made by Chinese immigrants in building the country's national railway. Chinese immigrants were a crucial part of "the most important nation building exercise in Canadian history -- the construction of the Canadian pacific railway," he said, "the Canada we know today would not be what it is without the work of Chinese workers."
Chinese immigration to Canada began as early as 1858 and thousands labored at the Canada Pacific Railway construction from 1881 to 1885. However, the head tax was applied immediately on Chinese immigrants after the railway was completed in a bid to deter further immigration.
About 81,000 people are believed to have paid the tax, which amounted to about two years' wages. In many cases, Chinese immigrants were either unable to bring their families to Canada or were reduced to long-time poverty because of the heavy tax.
"The apology, (one that is) sincere and in depth, is very important because Chinese have been in this country for over 150 years," Gim Wong, a Canadian-born son of head tax payers and Second World War veteran, said on Thursday.
"They contribute so much to the country and building the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) alone -- when as many as 4,000 died out of 15,000 or 16,000 -- that is horrific," Wong said.
It is believed that today there are about 35 survivors, 360 of their widows and fewer than 4,000 of their children. Some of these people were present at Thursday's apology ceremony.
To witness the event, about 100 head tax payer survivors and their relatives arrived in Ottawa Wednesday by a train dubbed "Redress Express".
The journey, which started off last Friday from Vancouver, the starting point of the Pacific Railway, is an intentional symbolic act reminding people of the painful connections between early Chinese immigrants and the railway.
"The purpose of tying this in with a railway ride is to remind ourselves that the railroad is part of the mythology of Canada and helped build Canada," said Susan Eng, co-chair of the Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Payers, on Wednesday. "And we have to remember the Chinese workers who gave their lives to build this country."
(Xinhua News Agency June 23, 2006)