Some Politically Incorrect Conclusions About The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws

April 5, 2006: Canada Was Right to Impose the Chinese Head Taxes

Some Politically Incorrect Conclusions About The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws


Conclusions About The Chinese Head Tax and The Chinese Exclusion Laws

Our federal government’s proposed “apology” on these matters raises a number of issues:

(1) First of all, the apology is really a judgement of people. It is saying that Canada (particularly British Columbia) had terrible people at the time these laws were enacted and that those people did terrible things. Since both the Head Tax and Exclusion Laws were supported by most of the population of B.C. as well as by virtually all B.C. MLA’s and MP’s, the question that has to be asked, on behalf of our deceased who are about to be placed a few levels deeper in Hell, is this: “Is this judgement correct?” (“Historical Statistics of Canada” says that in 1921, two years before the Chinese Exclusion Act, B.C.’s population was 524,582. Canada’s total population was 8,787,949.)

(2) Also, the apology suggests that no evidence exists to justify the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Laws. However, details uncovered by Dr. James Morton, who spent three years researching the issue of the Chinese in B.C., show that the assumptions are incorrect and that, although there was some prejudice, there was ample justification, particularly economic, for government actions.

One of the most important points to be noted is that, although the Chinese were only around 10% of the population of B.C., most of them were lone males, all of whom were workers. Consequently, the Chinese labourers were a disproportionate part of the total labour force. In contrast, the non-Chinese were a mix of male and female adults and children. The average household size (private and collective) in all of Canada between 1881 and 1921 was 4.9. If B.C.was average, only a small percentage (possibly 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 of the non-Chinese population were male workers.”Historical Statistics of Canada” states that in 1881, for example, there were 4383 Chinese in a total B.C. population of 49,459. If there were only 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 of the non-Chinese population (45,076) working, then non-Chinese labourers would have numbered 11, 269 and 9015 respectively.

Forensic research would have to be done to determine the exact proportion of Chinese to non-Chinese workers in B.C. at that time. However, the obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that the proportion was not the proportion in the general population: 10 non-Chinese: 1 Chinese worker. The actual ratio of non-Chinese to Chinese labourers was probably in the 2:1 or 2.5:1 range. As such, the effect of the Chinese labourers would have been felt far in excess of their actual numbers. This meant that when workers competed for jobs, Chinese workers would have had a significant impact in the British Columbia labour market. They were not some tiny minority.

As a percentage of the population, the Chinese did decline in the early 1900’s, but since the Japanese were brought in to replace the Chinese and to perform the same cheap labour function, the cheap labour component of the B.C. work force did not decline. The combined Chinese and Japanese population remained in a similar proportion to the rest of the B.C. work force.

(3) It is often argued that the Chinese were singled out among all immigrants for unfair treatment. However, the great majority of Chinese labourers who came to Canada in the 1880’s as CPR labourers (and for some time afterwards as labourers on other projects) came as temporary workers and were expected to leave. They did not come as immigrants and they did not bring their families with them. They arrived as lone males to make money and send remittances back to families in China. As an indication of which country was “home”, many who died here were buried here, but their bodies were later exhumed and their bones were returned to China.

Wages paid to Chinese labourers had been arranged with employers by Chinese contractors. Testimony given by Chinese labourers at Royal Commissions indicates that Chinese contractors did not tell the labourers all of the costs involved in their Canadian adventure.

The Chinese contractor agreements were very valuable to Canada’s federal government which was under extreme pressure to cut costs in the building of Canada’s first cross-country railroad. When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald heard complaints about the unfair wage advantage the Chinese enjoyed, he repeatedly (but likely inaccurately) pointed out that Canada had allowed Chinese labourers to enter the country solely because there was a shortage of labour in the early 1880’s. The Chinese, he said, would be leaving when construction had been completed. B.C. labourers should just be patient. However, Macdonald underestimated the greed of the Chinese contractors who soon imported a surplus of railway labourers and later a surplus of other labourers.

(4) The effect of the Chinese contractors compounded the problems which non-Chinese labour faced. Chinese labour was, in effect, organized labour of that time. However, since it was organized by contractors, its purpose was the opposite of modern organized labour. Its primary objective was low wages that would bring profit to Chinese contractors. The Chinese contractors knew that in order to compete, Chinese labour had to be significantly cheaper than non-Chinese labour.

The non-Chinese labour was not very well organized. In fact, the highly-organized structure of Chinese contractor labour was used to keep non-Chinese labour unorganized. For example, it was used to break strikes in coal mines. And, in general, it undermined the development of the union movement. It also preyed on any gains that non-Chinese labour made. As wage rates rose, Chinese contractors increased their profits and did pay their Chinese labourers more—enabling labourers to pay off their debts to contractors. (Chinese contractors, who operated as today’s “snakeheads”, often were the ones who paid for ship passage and head taxes. Later, to have workers repay their debts, they collected pay from employers and then deducted an appropriate amount each pay day from each labourer’s wages.)

If the advocates of head tax restitution are looking for an apology, they would do well to look for this from the surviving families of these Chinese contractors. It was the latter who precipitated the resentment that led to the enactment of the increasing series of head taxes from 1885 to 1903. They could also look to the surviving families of the Dunsmuirs (coal mine owners), CPR executives and others. As Mackenzie King discovered in 1907 while doing his investigation into Chinese/Japanese compensation claims for damages suffered during the 1907 Vancouver riot, these people conspired to import cheap Chinese/Japanese labour at the expense of the B.C. labour force. Essentially, the Chinese head tax (and a similar proposal for a Japanese head tax) was an attempt to level the playing field for labourers by reducing the number of Chinese labourers. It did work for a time in its final stage because it created a labour shortage and an increase in wages, but it did not work in its early forms because it was set too low.

(5) Those Chinese who advocate an apology for the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion laws also have to take a long look at the illicit trade in re-entry certificates. Individual Chinese participated in this during the late 1880’s. These re-entry certificates were issued to Chinese labourers of both pre- and post- Head Tax days. They were intended to allow Chinese labourers who had been in Canada for some time to return to China for visits and then to re-enter Canada without being subject to the head tax. However, as had occurred in the U.S. where the practice had begun, individual Chinese in B.C. were sending the re-entry certificates to relatives in China so that these relatives could come to Canada. In some cases, the certificates were probably free, but in other cases, they were sold. How many of the current Chinese looking for an apology can trace their family origins to people who used these certificates to enter Canada illegally? How many of today’s Chinese know of other families who entered Canada in this way?

(6) Furthermore, those Chinese who advocate an apology should take a long look at all those Chinese who entered Canada in other illegal ways. Chief Justice Denis Murphy, the Head of a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration in 1910-1911, uncovered two methods the Chinese used to avoid paying the Head Tax. One was to have labourers have themselves classified as merchants because merchants could enter Canada freely. The other was an elaborate people-smuggling scheme which involved large numbers of Chinese entering Canada on ships, especially ships which docked at ports on Vancouver Island. The number who stayed in B.C. versus those who were smuggled into the U.S. has not been determined. But this smuggling, which may have involved both Chinese contractors and individual Chinese, the fraudulent use of the “merchant” category, and the illicit trade in re-entry certificates raise the whole question of who should be apologizing to whom. In other words, how many of today’s Chinese can trace their ancestry to people who entered Canada as bogus “merchants” or as smuggled persons?

(7) If people of this time would like a modern parallel to the situation that workers of the 1880’s to 1920’s had to face, people need only look at the feelings of Canadian workers today towards Canada’s high immigration levels. In engineering, for example, it is probable that the inflow of large numbers of engineers in the last six years has resulted in engineer wage suppression in Canada and in the migration of Canadian-born engineers to the U.S. in search of employment. In the case of other Canadian skilled labour, it has resulted in the flight of many Canadian factory jobs to cheap labour in China. The most recent case of this in Canada has been fish plant workers in Newfoundland having their work outsourced to China because it is cheaper to process the fish there. Do Canada’s great “humanitarians”, who jump at the chance to join any redress cause, believe that all the “wealthy” Newfoundland fish plant workers should remain silent? Who in Canada today would say that standing up for Canadian-born engineers or Newfoundland fish plant workers means they are discriminating against the Chinese? Who would say that the use of Canada’s resources for the benefit of Canadians (precisely one of the arguments of the 1880’s and on) is unjust?

Similarly in the U.S., high tech workers have had their jobs outsourced or, even worse, have seen their own government outrageously allow foreign workers—at the urging of business people such as “impoverished” Bill Gates— to enter the country and take jobs which they feel should have gone to Americans. In Canada, our federal government, allows itself to get stampeded into believing that Canada has a shortage of workers—-despite the fact that Canada continues to have the world’s highest per capita immigrant intake (250,000) per year), many of whom are surplus to the country’s needs. In addition, successive governments have encouraged different immigrant professionals to complain loudly that their skills are unused. The fact is that the federal government has duped many immigrants into thinking there are jobs here. Now, instead of taking responsibility for their fraudulent advertising, the federal government blames this problem on Canada’s certification organizations.

(8) Although the Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion laws may seem like old matters, they are very definitely related to modern immigration issues. Although a number of people involved in the advocacy are honest and well-intentioned, they are clearly being used by Canada’s immigration industry for other purposes. The resurrection of these two issues is intended to evoke guilt in Canada’s host population and to put Canadians on the never-ending road to that impossible-to-locate place called Absolution. The motive is blunt: to maintain or increase current immigration levels and to promote further opening of Canada’s borders. Under the guise of justice and restitution, Canada’s immigration industry seeks to legitimize the idea that there are no economic, environmental, or cultural limits to Canada. This will be an unmitigated disaster for the country.

The federal government has just announced in its Throne Speech that it is looking sympathetically at the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Law issues. Dr. James Morton’s thorough work should show our government that its actions should be based on serious research, not on the conditioned “Four Legs Good. Two Legs Bad” response that these two issues elicit from people who know nothing and who refuse to learn anything about these issues.