Part 2: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?

March 14, 2006: Part 2: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted?

Press Release

Part 2: Why Were The Chinese Head Tax and The Chinese Exclusion Laws Enacted? (Source: “In the Sea Of Sterile Mountains”)

A number of conclusions could be drawn from Part 1. One of the major ones is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of 2006, The Chinese Head Tax Act was a legitimate reaction by the Government of Canada to the flooding of the British Columbia labour market by Chinese labour contractors. These contractors were ignoring widespread unemployment among both the Chinese and host population and continuing to bring in Chinese labourers. This had caused unfair competition between recently-arrived Chinese labourers and host population labourers for limited available employment.

(1) The year 1883 was the peak employment year for CPR construction in British Columbia. Chinese labourers were already being laid off because parts of Andrew Onderdonk’s railway contracts had been completed. (Pp. 103-104)

“How are these miserable creatures to exist until spring?” asked The Columbian newspaper. “By January 1884, some indigent Chinese were seen eating decayed vegetables which they had found about the streets of Yale; along the Thompson River, they were camped in hundreds…. There were said to be 500 such Orientals around Savona and upward of 2000 in Spence’s Bridge.” (P. 106)

“John Robson stated that some 3000 were burrowing caves in the earth near Tilton Creek and eating dead salmon from the stream. The government, he said, should either feed or transport them.” (P. 107)

Yet despite the unemployment, over 3000 Chinese labourers arrived in 1884; about half of the 3000 arrived in the first six months of 1884. (P. 106) (Note: Chinese contractors should have been very much aware of the high unemployment among the Chinese.)

(2) In August 1883, 300 coal miners (mostly of European ethnicity) in Robert Dunsmuir’s coal mines on Vancouver Island went on strike for higher wages. Dunsmuir used the Chinese to break the strike and later admitted that he had succeeded in doing so. (P. 107) Samuel Robbins, Superintendent of the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, later said that his company had used the Chinese for the same purpose. (P. 119) (These incidents undoubtedly increased the resentment that the host labourer population felt towards both Dunsmuir, Robbins and the Chinese.)

(3) Two new laws were introduced to the B.C. legislature. One, The Chinese Regulation Act of 1884, “proposed that every Chinese over the age of 14 years purhase a licence for a sum set at $100”. Exhumation of Chinese graves by fellow Chinese and shipping of bones back to China was to be regulated. Opium was to be prohibited and a minimum size for dwelling rooms was to be established. (P. 109)

The second, ‘An Act To Prevent The Immigration of Chinese’ “stated that it was unlawful for Chinese to enter the province and that a fine of $50 or six months imprisonment would be levied on law-breakers. Furthermore, any person assisting Chinese to enter was liable to a fine of $100.” (P. 109)

John Robson argued that “the acts might be ruled unconstitutional, but they must be passed locally to impress upon the Dominion government that legislation was imperative”. (P. 110)

As expected, both were disallowed by the federal government. But a major point had been made.

(3) Prime Minister John A. Macdonald established a two-man Commission to investigate Chinese immigration into B.C. From the start, the attitudes of Hon. Joseph A. Chapleau, Secretary of State in the federal government, and Mr. Justice John Hamilton Gray of the Supreme Court were questioned. Because the Canadian Pacific Raiway had not been completed, and no other trans-Canada route existed, both travelled across the U.S. to San Francisco and then by steamer to Victoria.

Before leaving San Francisco, both had toured the city’s Chinatown and made inquiries about the Chinese presence there. They were particularly interested in what was happening there because “U.S. President Chester Arthur had signed a bill in 1882 prohibiting the immigration of Chinese into the United States for a period of ten years”. (P. 113) The issues that B.C. complained about existed on a much larger scale in the western U.S. and were much discussed in B.C.

In total, 31 witnesses appeared before the Commission in British Columbia while 39 answered printed questions. Persons from all income levels were heard from. (P. 116)

B.C.’s “aristocracy” spoke in favour of the Chinese while B.C.’s legislators and working people spoke against. Huang Sic Chen, a member of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, went to Victoria specifically to testify to the Commission. He presented statistics. He said that although it was claimed there were 15,000 Chinese in B.C. at that time (1885), there were really only 10,550, the difference being made up by deaths or departures. (Pp. 119-120)

The Knights of Labour complained that their children had to seek employment in other countries. The Nanaimo Trades Association told the Commission that the federal government had a policy of “Canada for Canadians”, but that it had given away resources such as coal and forests to millionaire Robert Dunsmuir who used the Chinese to drive down labourers’ wages. Sensing condescension in the commissioners, Mayor Noah Shakespeare of Victoria and other prominent people boycotted the hearings. (Pp. 120-122)

The Commission admitted that the great majority of witnesses were opposed to Chinese immigration. (P. 121)

The Commission made three recommendations: a Chinese consul should be appointed to Victoria; a duty of $10 should be imposed upon every Chinese entering Canada.; the money raised should be used to administer the Chinese population. (P. 123)

(4) A Chinese informant stated that there was no need for the Chinese labourers who arrived in 1885 and that misrepresentations by Chinese merchants (contractors) had lured poor Chinese labourers who had to give the merchants over half of their wages for the next 4 to 10 years in order to pay for ship’s passage and other expenses in addition to board. (P. 123)

(5) The B.C. Legislature voted in March, 1885 to re-pass the legislation that the federal government had disallowed. But, in April, 1885, the federal government again disallowed the Immigration Law. Through Commissioner Joseph Chapleau, who was also a Cabinet minister, the federal government legislated a $5 duty on every Chinese entering Canada. (P. 128) Later, the federal government again disallowed the Chinese Regulation Law.

(6) Despite the fact that there was really no need for more Chinese labourers (the CPR would be finished in a few months and the Vancouver Island Railway –The Esquimalt and Nanaimo–was to be finished in nine months), another 1000 Chinese labourers arrived in Victoria in the summer of 1885.

(7) Finally, the House of Commons passed a Chinese Restriction Bill which was to take effect on August 3, 1885. A duty of $50 would now be imposed on every arriving Chinese and each ship could carry only one Chinese per 50 tons of ship’s weight. (P. 131)

(8) Unemployment increased among all groups as the CPR construction approached its end. In September, 1885, the CPR laid off 6000 men. By mid-November, 1885, 1000 Chinese had left for China. Other Chinese had crossed the American border illegally. Another 1500 were estimated to have died in Canada. However, the Chinese Regulation Act was not being enforced on new arrivals because officers were too busy to collect the fee. (P. 135)

(9) “Furthermore, it was charged that Chinese were purchasing re-entry certificates which were then sent to China. (Chinese residents of Canada were given certificates which allowed them to leave the country and re-enter without being liable to the $50 tax, provided they could show a (re-entry) certificate.) The illicit trade in re-entry certificates made a mockery of the Dominion Restriction Act.” (P. 135)

(10) By January, 1886, most of the 3000 Chinese labourers in Victoria had become destitute. Victoria City Council tried to do something to help. With the urging of The Colonist, a soup kitchen was set up. In addition, San Francisco’s Chinese (Six Companies of San Francisco) hired four steam ships and offered discount fares of $25 back to China. Free passage and $15 was to be given to those 60 or older. Those younger than 60 could also get free passage and $10 if they could prove poverty. It is not known how many left on these ships. (P. 138)

(11) An extension of the railway from Vancouver to New Westminster was planned in the Spring of 1886 with the condition that no Chinese labour be used. William Van Horne, President of the CPR, threatened not to build the extension unless he had Chinese labour. Finally, he got his way. “Three hundred Chinese and seven whites were hard at work on the extension in May.” (P.139) (Note the difference in numbers.)

(12) Possibly responding to experiences in Victoria and elsewhere in B.C. with Chinese labour and goaded by Americans who had had similar experiences with Chinese labour in the U.S., the Vancouver Knights of Labour began a campaign against businesses that “employed Chinese, sold them food or patronized them in any way”. The Knights painted an “X” on the sidewalks in front of such stores or offices. (P. 145)

(13) Two mob incidents occurred (in January and February) of 1887. (The population of Vancouver in 1884 was 2000, of whom 114 were Chinese.) Resentful about land-clearing jobs being given to Chinese labourers who worked for less, white labourers drove the Chinese out of Vancouver (P. 151), apparently with the tacit approval of Vancouver politicians. The B.C. legislature reacted by, in effect, imposing martial law on Vancouver: it sent a force of provincial constables to Vancouver to quell the actions and to permit the Chinese to return. By hiring Chinese labourers on one 350 acre plot, one of the contractors was estimated to have increased his profit to $21,000, “a stupendous sum for 1887”. (Pp. 145-153)

(14) “In the 15 month period beginning in January 1886, …797 arrived by ship from the Orient, though only 127 were classified as immigrants. The remainder were returning to the United States or were classified as students or travellers.” (P. 158)

(15) It became apparent in 1887, however, that there were loopholes in the Immigration Act, particularly in regard to re-entry certificates….. This evoked comments by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald that Chinese immigration was not a good thing because it would introduce conflict among the working class. (P. 158)

(16) The U.S. had both a 10 year Chinese exclusion law and re-entry certificates, but they too found that “many Orientals, on obtaining a certificate, promptly mailed it to China for the use of a relative, friend or paying customer, and as early as 1888, the U.S. was considering an absolute exclusion act. In July of 1888…,”steamers arriving in Vancouver had carried 3527 Chinese, of which 2,854 were continuing to San Francisco. And it was generally accepted that that the smuggling of Chinese into Washington Territory was occurring with almost daily regularity”. (P. 159)

(17) Early in October, 1888, President Grover Cleveland suddenly signed an absolute exclusion act, forbidding the entry of all Chinese, whether they held a re-entry certificate or not. This caused major problems for Chinese who had boarded ships to North America before the American law was passed. It caused a number of them to pay the Canadian head tax and then either to remain in Canada or to slip across the border into the U.S. Head tax revenue for October 1888 was around $11,000 (220 Chinese). (P. 159.)

(18) Following an explosion which killed 194 coal miners in 1887, an amendment was introduced to the Coal Mines Regulation Act. The change would forbid Chinese, who had been blamed for the explosion, from working underground. John Robson, who had introduced a proposal for a Chinese Head Tax in 1872, spoke against the amendment and in favour of those Chinese who were long-term residents of B.C. and had worked in the coal mines. (P. 161)

(19) In 1890, John Robson became Premier of British Columbia. A petition from 1500 miners to exclude Chinese from working underground was presented to his government. Characterizing the petition as not just “the old anti-Chinese cry”, Robson and the entire B.C. legislature passed the bill. But it was ignored by Robert Dunsmuir, owner of several coal mines. It was later disallowed by the federal government. (P. 162)

(20) Vancouver City Council offered Industrialist B.T Rogers a bonus, and tax and water concessions if he did not employ Chinese in the sugar refinery he was planning to build in Vancouver.

(21) In the period 1887-1890, 1887 Chinese entered Canada. But Tai Yune, the largest dealer in opium in the province, believed that…(Victoria’s) population had dwindled from 7000 to 3000…. (P. 164)

(22) In 1891, Thomas Keith, one of two Labour members in the B.C. Legislature, proposed the same amendment that previous governments had approved: that Chinese be forbidden to work underground in coal mines. The standard reason for this was that the Chinese could not read mining regulations posted in English on signs and therefore were a danger to all other miners who could. It was defeated, presumably for ideological reasons. The Labour member proposed the same law the next year to include Japanese. He did the same thing the following two years. All were defeated. The majority in the B.C. legislature defended their action by saying that Canada had trade treaties with Japan, which she did not have with China, and did not want to jeopardize those treaties. (Pp. 165-166)

(23) The Canadian Census of 1891 stated that there were 9,129 Chinese in Canada. Of these, 8910 (97%) Chinese were in B.C. The total non-First Nations B.C. population in 1891 was 107,302 (Chinese: 8.5%). (P. 167) (Note: The Chinese were accused of “interfering” with this census. “Interfering = not participating, and thus reducing the true count of Chinese?)

In response to calls for Chinese exclusion from B.C. MP’s and B.C. Labour, Prime Minister John. A. Macdonald replied that the Chinese were only a small group. “If, however, there seemed to be a prospect of the Chinese coming in and swamping the whites, I would be willing to let the trade go rather than let the interests of the people of British Columbia be ignored.” Macdonald died a short time later in June, 1891. (P. 167) (Macdonald, although a resident of Ontario, had been one of the MP’s for Victoria since 1878–13 years–and was very familiar with the views of people in British Columbia.)

(24) In 1894, Labour MLA Thomas Keith proposed a bill to ask Ottawa to raise the Chinese Head Tax from $50 to $500. It was defeated, but another bill to raise the tax to $100 was approved and sent to Ottawa. It was finally responded to by Canada’s Minister of Trade and Commerce, not the Minister of Immigration, who stated that passage of such a law might interfere with trade with China. (Pp. 168-169)

(25) New Chinese immigration began in 1890 with 2367 arriving in 18 months, “paying $131,850 in head money”. (P. 171) The numbers continued to increase with 200 to 500 arriving on every ship. Some arrived with smallpox. This caused alarm, but not as much as the continued arrival of Chinese and Japanese during the economic depression and the rise in unemployment which began in 1893. The Fishermen’s Union complained in 1893 of Chinese working for lower wages. (P. 173)

(26) Despite the unemployment in the host population, Chinese contractors continued to bring in labourers, made arrangements with fish canneries and other employers to employ the Chinese, paid the head tax for an unknown number of immigrant labourers and deducted a part of this tax from the pay given to each labourer every payday. (Pp. 172-174)

(Note: These labourers were almost certainly surplus to B.C.’s labour needs. As in the 1880’s, Chinese contractors were frustrating government attempts in the 1890’s to protect the host Canadian population. They were using Chinese labourers to break strikes and to undermine wages for host population labourers. In effect, Chinese immigration was in private hands and was being used primarily for the benefit of Chinese contractors. A full list of conclusions will be drawn later.)