Part 1 : Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?

Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?—PART 1, March 8, 2006

Press Release

In Canada’s recent federal election, many MP candidates expressed their disapproval of the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Law. Immediately after the election, Prime Minister Harper added to the discussion in a major speech by referring to the Chinese Head Tax and The Chinese Exclusion Law as “unfair”.

In the spirit of shining light onto an issue, Immigration Watch Canada provides some useful background information about the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Law Issues. (The source is “In The Sea Of Sterile Mountains” by James Morton, M.D. and former Assistant Professor of Medicine at UBC.)

(1) Both the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act were federal responses to repeated calls from the colonial Vancouver Island and B.C. Legislatures, the subsequent B.C. Legislature and B.C. citizens. Legislators and other citizens of British Columbia were the almost exclusive petitioners in Canada to the federal government for such laws. This was because B.C. was residence to almost all of the Chinese present in Canada.

The census of 1881 listed 4350 Chinese in B.C.; 22 in Ontario; 7 in Quebec; 4 in Manitoba; none in N.B., N.S. or P.E.I. (P. 82)

The total B.C. population in the 1881 census was 49,459. Around half of B.C.’s population in 1881 consisted of First Nations. Inflows of thousands of Chinese would have garnered attention.

British Columbia was referred to by one prominent Ontario MP as “an inhospitable country, a sea of sterile mountains”. Having little experience with Chinese immigration, MP’s from other parts of Canada found it difficult to understand B.C.’s concerns about the Chinese and often characterized these concerns as unworthy of attention.

Many years passed between the B.C. calls for attention and a desired response from the federal government.

(2) The first Chinese Head Tax was $50. It was imposed by John A. Macdonald’s government in 1885. It was raised by Wilfrid Laurier’s government to $100 in 1900. It was increased again by Laurier in 1903 to $500.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1923 by Mackenzie King’s government. It should be noted that Chinese consuls, merchants and students could continue to enter Canada. A certain amount of abuse followed.

(3) The Chinese had arrived in B.C. in 1858 at the beginning of the B.C. Gold Rush. Several hundred early Chinese had come from the San Francisco area where they had taken part in the California Gold Rush (1849+). Another 1577 Chinese arrived from Hong Kong in 1860 to participate in the B.C. Gold Rush which continued until about 1870.

Most of both Chinese groups had come to find gold, but some (the Kwong Lee family) were merchants and some intended to open other businesses such as laundries. A census of May, 1860 showed that with the inflow of 1577 Chinese from Hong Kong, the Chinese for a short time comprised close to half of the non-First Nations population of Vancouver Island. Most of these 1577 were to leave for Mainland B.C. to look for gold. Early B.C. objections to Chinese immigration were based on concerns of being overwhelmed culturally.

(4) The first head tax proposal of $10 on Chinese was debated in the Vancouver Island House of Assembly in 1860. It was defeated on the grounds that it was not good for commerce since more Chinese would be coming to look for gold and would be purchasing goods from different businesses. This provincial objection and later federal ones, which stated that Canada’s or Britain’s trade with China might be jeopardized, were used repeatedly to oppose legislation about the Chinese.

(5) In May, 1865, a similar motion was defeated for similar reasons.

(6) In 1871, in the last session of B.C.’s colonial legislature (just before B.C. joined Canada), a motion to impose a head tax of $50 per Chinese per year was introduced, but defeated. (P. 28)

(7) John Robson, publisher of the newspaper, “The Colonist”, expressed workers’ concerns about competition for employment between newly-arrived Chinese (who were willing to work for low wages) and settlers. He asked in an editorial (February 15, 1872) if Britain which had just set a noble example by “freeing slaves from her dominions” was now going to..”stultify her noblest acts by introducing coolie slave labour–for that is what Chinese labour really means—to compete with her own struggling sons”? (P. 35)

(Note: The word “coolie” is an Anglo-Indian word from the Bengali or Tomil word “kuli” meaning “burden bearer”. (P. 10))

“…let it be our earnest aim from the first to give labour its true position and its fitting reward. So shall we succeed in building up a great, free and enlightened commonwealth in British North America.” (P. 36)

John Robson’s concerns would later be expressed by other labour organizations and by a number of other B.C. citizens, including those from Socialist ranks.

(8) One week later (Feb., 1871), MLA Robson introduced a bill for the imposition of a per capita tax of $50 per annum upon Chinese in the province. It was defeated on the grounds that it would be declared unconstitutional by the federal government.

(9) In introducing the bill and later, Robson said the Chinese had not paid their fair share of taxes on taxable goods sold in the province for the maintenance of the province. The Head Tax would be B.C.’s way of making sure the Chinese satisfied that requirement. (P. 37) Opponents agreed with Robson, but continued to say the bill would be disallowed by Ottawa.

A year later (1873), The Colonist repeated the statement that the Chinese should be compelled “to contribute something like an equitable ratio toward the public revenues of the country which gave them a home and protection to life and property”. (P. 42)

(10) In 1875, The Colonist reported that B.C.’s Chinese sent $800,000 a year back to China in remittances to families. (P. 51) It implied that unemployed B.C. workers with families as well as the province’s treasury could have made good use of even a part of that amount of money. (Note: To obtain an equivalent of $800,000 in 2006 currency, $800,000 would have to be multiplied by a number probably close to 100.)

(11) On July 29, 1878, the B.C. legislature unanimously passed a bill stating that “Chinese should not be employed on the public works of the province”. (P. 61) This was done on the grounds that many of the Chinese did not contribute to public coffers, so they should not benefit by being given wages from these coffers. The City of Victoria had passed a similar law regarding its public works in 1875.

(12) On August 2, 1878, Premier and Attorney-General George Walkem introduced a bill “which would prevent Chinese from escaping taxes in the future”. “All Chinese were to take out a licence every six months…(for) which $30 would be paid in advance.” (P. 61) This bill also passed, but it was withdrawn because of a 5-day strike by Chinese workers. Later, it was declared unconstitutional since it interfered with the authority of the Dominion government”. (Pp.62- 63)

(13) In the Fall of 1878, the Workingman’s Protective Association (WPA) was formed in Victoria. It began to advocate for non-Chinese workers. The Chinese had a counterpart society which they had used to organize their strike in 1878. (Pp. 64-66)

(14) Since one of the key terms of B.C.’s entry into Confederation had been breached (the beginning of the railway to B.C.), one of B.C.’s MP’s expressed a common B.C. sentiment. He threatened secession. Another B.C. M.P. urged the federal government to prevent Chinese labour in Dominion works, to bar further Chinese entry and to join Britain in preventing Chinese from leaving Hong Kong. The pressure resulted in the start of the railway in B.C. in the Spring of 1880 and in the establishment of a Select Committee on Chinese Labour and Immigration. (Pp. 66-72)

(15) The Select Committee’s Report, dated May 14, 1879, recommended that Chinese immigration not be encouraged and that Chinese labour ought not to be employed on Dominion public works. (P. 73)

(16) In late December, 1879, Andrew Onderdonk, an American contractor working on behalf of an American railway syndicate, bought 4 contracts for most of the B.C. section of the Trans-Canada railway (CPR). He promised to employ white labourers only, but it was ominously reported that one of the members of the American sydicate he represented was “President of a Chinese company with 60,000 Chinese at his beck”. (P. 76)

(17) Although Onderdonk did bring in 238 American workers from California, he requisitioned 2939 Chinese labourers for 1881. (P. 85) According to Pierre Berton’s “The Last Spike”, Onderdonk did so because he could pay Chinese labourers $1 a day. Other labourers were paid between $1.50 and $1.75 a day.

(17) “The Chinese were always under contract …(to) a Chinese boss or ‘tyhee’ who received from the white contractor a lump payment from which he paid his men.” (P. 84) Later, especially in Head Tax days, the Chinese boss would become a significant figure because many Chinese entered Canada not as individual immigrants, but through his organization.

It is probable that the Chinese boss paid the head tax and then hired out workers to recover his investment. It was to his advantage to bring in as many Chinese as he could possibly find employment for. It seemed to make no difference how high the head tax was because it was absorbed by these Chinese labour contractors.

(18) With greater numbers, the Chinese began to assert themselves more. They went on strike for such things as higher pay in Victoria and travel time on the railway. (P. 85)

(19) In 1882, the B.C. Legislative Assembly unanimously asked “the Dominion government and the CPR syndicate to take steps to use white labour only; they also proposed that the government consider the immigration question”. (P. 90)

(19) However, to the alarm of many, in 1882, Onderdonk had requisitioned an even larger number of Chinese. A total of 8082 Chinese labourers arrived that year. (This was in excess of what the railway needed. ) John A. Macdonald tried to allay fears by saying that there was a labour shortage for railway construction. He viewed the Chinese as temporary workers in Canada and said there was no harm in accepting Chinese as long as they later left the country. (P. 92) In a later speech, he said “his policy was ‘Canadians for Canadians’ and for immigrants from the Old World part of the Great British Empire”. (P. 95)

(20) In 1883, B.C. MP Noah Shakespeare proposed that Chinese entering the province be assessed $50 and that each ship arriving in British Columbia be restricted to one Chinese to every 100 tons. John A. Macdonald replied by saying “that there was no point in excluding Chinese until they could be replaced” and…that they were not settlers; they had no wives and they would ultimately leave the country.” When the railway was finished, “he would not exclude them, but he would regulate and restrict their admission”. (Pp. 102-103)

(21) According to The Colonist, by mid 1883, “the peak of Chinese immigration had passed. Onderdonk had secured 800 white mechanics and 3000 white labourers from California and Nevada in the U.S. and from Manitoba”. (Pp. 103-104)

(22) In 1885, the year before the railway was completed, and B.C. sections joined the other Canadian sections in B.C.’s ‘sterile mountains’, Onderdonk testified in writing that ”he had employed as many as 9000 men at one time—6000 Chinese and 3000 whites”.
Addition shows that Onderdonk brought in considerably more Chinese than he employed at the height of construction.