John A. MacDonald, the Head Tax and Chinese Workers in Canada

The Head Tax for Chinese immigrants to enter Canada was $50 in 1895, $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. Some say you could buy a couple of houses for $500, but Chinese workers still came.

Between 1880 and 1882, 4,000 of the 17,000 workers who came to Canada from China to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains, died in the process of construction.

From a lovely yet sad film from the NFB, Karen Cho’s In The Shadow of Gold Mountain:

“By 1923 the Canadian government had collected over 23 million dollars [probably worth more than a billion dollars today] in Head Tax from 81,000 Chinese. It was almost enough to pay for the 25 million dollar Canadian Pacific Railway that the Chinese had helped to build.

Yet the Head Tax is just a small part of this story. On July 1st [Canada Day/Dominion Day], 1923, it would be replaced by legislation [the Exclusion Act] making the Chinese the first and only people to be excluded from Canada because of race.

This exclusion would last for 24 years [so no other Chinese could come].

It meant immeasurably more than the price of the Head Tax. It would cost Chinese Canadians their families.”

From John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister in 1895 (recall, this is over 30 years after the American Civil War):

The Chinese are foreigners. If they come to this country, after three years’ residence, they may, if they choose, be naturalized.

But still we know that when the Chinaman comes here he intends to return to his own country. He does not bring his family with him. He is a stranger, a sojourner in a strange land, for his own purposes for a while.

He has no common interest with us, and while he gives us his labor and is paid for it, and is valuable, the same as a threshing machine or any other agricultural implement which we may borrow from the United States on hire and return it to the owner on the south side of the line.

A Chinaman gives us his labor and gets money, but that money does not fructify in Canada; and if he cannot, his executors or his friends send his body back to the flowery land.

But he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.

Early Canada. The Unions, including the Knights of Labour, for all their great work, were similarly exclusive and racist.

Despite being denied citizenship and the right to vote, many Chinese fought for Canada in World War II. The Chinese were on the side of the allies, with the Japanese invasion of China starting in the 1930s (Manchuria and the often still-denied Rape of Nanking). Of course, during the same war, the Japanese in Canada had their land confiscated (during the war) and were sent to internment camps.

In 1947, the Exclusion Act was repealed and Chinese could finally become Canadian citizens. After some 24 years, families were reunited—a lifetime too late.

New Zealand in 2004 were the first Commonwealth country to compensate Chinese immigrants who had been subject to a poll or head tax. Despite internal pressure and urging from the UN, the Canadian government(s) continued to say no to compensation (I think this is still the case), although a formal apology was given in 2006. As far as I know (which is not far, Japanese-Canadians have been at least somewhat compensated for their World War II internment.

You can see Karen’s 43 minute film here.

Thank god things have improved, in many ways. But it’s good for me to consider this tragic history, and remember.

Lots of love to all my brothers and sisters, the builders of Canada and elsewhere,



Leave a Reply