More Specifics From A Royal Commission Report About The Chinese Head Tax Issue—Part 3

More Specifics From A 1901 Royal Commission Report About The Chinese Head Tax Issue (Part 3)


Overall Picture:

As most Canadians know, Canada’s federal government has recently apologized to Chinese Head Tax payers and their survivors. Although some people have equated questions about the justice of the Chinese Head Tax with questions about the occurrence of the Holocaust, the big question remains “Is it true that the Chinese Head Tax was principally the expression of prejudice?” A look at the details provided in a 1901 Royal Commission Report shows that this view is incorrect.

Witnesses who testified before the 1901 Royal Commission repeatedly made the major point that they were suffering economically because of the influx of the Chinese. This point was re-iterated by people who had thoroughly investigated the issue such as members of Royal Commissions and prominent Canadians such as future Prime Minister Mackenzie King. At times, economic suffering meant actual loss of jobs to Chinese. At other times, it meant reduction in wages because the Chinese worked for less and employers had to reduce wages to white labour in order for products to remain competitive. It also meant that undetermined numbers of workers had to leave B.C. for other places, including the U.S.

One important complaint often made by B.C. residents was that the federal government had a major responsibility to protect the jobs and job prospects of its own people.This meant the Native population; the people of British Columbia who had come from other parts of Canada or the U.K. ; the people of other parts of Canada who in future might want to come here either temporarily or permanently; and those people from the U.K. or nearby dominions such as Newfoundland who also in future might be interested in immigrating. Witnesses stated indirectly that citizens of China and Japan should be far down the list of people that Canada should be serving. The point made by at least one witness was that if China, Japan or any other country had a colony, it would most certainly give employment and immigration preference to the people of its own country (and related countries) rather than to people from other countries.

Another complaint was that the entry of the Chinese during the construction of the CPR had created an aberration in the way in which people looked for employment and an unfairness in hiring because the Chinese contractors offered their workers at significantly less cost. White job seekers sought employment on their own as individuals. In contrast, Chinese contractors who, beginning in the 1880’s had brought temporary Chinese labourers to B.C., sought employment mostly for large groups. This was undoubtedly because most of the Chinese could speak no English and could not bargain on their own. The contractors soon understood that they could profit from group contracting as well as from seeking contracts for individuals who might be the only person to be hired by an employer. Some of these contractors became very wealthy. They were able to get group contracts for Chinese labourers on railways, in canneries, in sawmills and in mines. They also got individual contracts for Chinese in domestic service. In a number of industries, the Chinese displaced the white workers and became the largest employee group. Employers used the Chinese and later the Japanese to reduce labour costs, but also as a way to reduce hiring and recruitment costs which the Chinese contractors absorbed as part of their agreements with employers.

The Royal Commission Report had two primary purposes. One was to determine the extent of Chinese and Japanese participation in the B.C. labour force. The second was to evaluate the effect of the Chinese and Japanese on B.C. and the need that the B.C. economy had for the Chinese and Japanese. In making their final report, the Royal Commission looked at each industry separately, and reached a conclusion about the effects of Chinese and Japanese and the need or lack of need for Chinese and Japanese labourers in each industry.

The Royal Commission also travelled to the United States—-primarily because the United States had instituted a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The Royal Commission interviewed American business and labour to see whether the American economy had suffered as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Commissioners wanted to learn from the experience of the U.S.

This section of their report looked at the following British Columbia industries: lumber (1538 employees), shingle (992 employees), fish canning (20,262 employees), domestic servant (1050 employees), laundry (800 to 1000 employees), merchant tailor (about 250 to 300 employees in Victoria and Vancouver) and wholesale clothing (less than 200 employees).



(1) The Royal Commission interviewed 15 representatives from lumber mills in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and its Interior. Fourteen of the representatives were mill owners and managers. One was an employee. The representatives were almost unanimous in recommending restrictions on further Chinese immigration. (P.127) At peak times, together they employed 1538 workers. Of these, 74% were white, 10% were Chinese and 15.7% were Japanese. (P.119)

(2) The reasons given for restriction were similar to those given by other businesses. There was no real need for extra labourers in B.C. Cheap Chinese labour had discouraged labourers from other parts of Canada, Newfoundland, and the U.K. from coming to B.C. (P.119) Although cheap Chinese and Japanese labour permitted some mills to remain competitive, the removal of 25 to 30% duties on American-made machinery being imported into Canada would be a better way to be competitive. (P.121) If the Americans removed their tariff on Canadian lumber going into the U.S., that would help Canadian mill owners to employ more white labour. (P.123) The money paid to white labourers remains in Canada, but a significant part of the wages paid to Oriental labour is sent back to China and Japan; if wages circulated in Canada, there would be more demand for labour and more demand for mill products. (P.121)

(3) The shingle business employed a total of 992 labourers: 44.8% white, 18.4% Chinese and 36.6% Japanese. (P.127) A total of 8 representatives from the industry were interviewed. Seven were managers/owners and one was a skilled employee. Contractors arrange for employees.

(4) Experience in Washington and Oregon mills has shown that “neither Chinese nor Japanese are essential to the success of this business, but being available and conveniently employed by contract, they have become a part of the machinery which for a time would be thrown out of gear, if they were discharged”. (P.133)

(5) The salmon canning industry ranked in importance with B.C.’s mines and lumbering. In 1900, it employed 20,262 people. “The number of Chinese and Japanese employed in it greatly exceds the number of them employed in any other industry.” (P.134) However, canning employment was seasonal, usually lasting 5 to 6 months. Employment was usually concentrated in two months. (P.135) The number of days worked per month fluctuated wildly. Between 1897 and 1900, in the Ewen and Company Cannery in New Westminster, employment was as little as 1+ day per month and as high as 24 days of a 26 day work month. (P.140) Of 10,000 people employed directly in canneries, 6000 were Chinese.

The Chinese are employed by contract “with boss Chinamem who hire their own help in their own way” and who pay their Chinese employees $35 to $45 per month. (P.135) The contractors take responsibility for any loss and make all necessary work and accomodation arrangements, thus saving the cannery from many problems. “It is manifest that this method of conducting the business, places it practically in the hands of the Chinese, prevents white workmen from being trained to this part of the business, and partly accounts for the fact why cannerymen agree that Chinese are required for this industry.” (P.135)

(6) Many witnesses testified that there were too many fishermen and that the rivers were being overfished. There were also too many canneries. Alexander Ewen, cannery owner, testified:”Overcrowding will cure itself. But for cheap labour, I do not think there would be so many canneries in existence.” (P.138) “Under existing circumstances, the canneries could not be carried on without oriental labour.” (P.139) The average wage for Chinese was around $38 per 26-day month, but workers often did not get 26 days of work per month. White men received about $79 for the same time period, but they were only a small fraction of the cannery work force. (P.140) In order to secure Chinese labourers, contractors offerred a month’s advance in wages and a guarantee of a minimum amount of work.

(7) Mar Chan, a Chinese contractor, who had contracts with 6 canneries, testified that he employed Indians and Chinese. “The wages paid to Chinese ten years ago in the cannery business was much less than now. Wages have been getting higher every year……..A great many (Chinese) have gone to the American side. There they have a longer period of work than they have here. The wages are about the same.” (Pp.142-143)

(8) Henry O. Bell-Irving who represented the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company which owned 12 canneries, and sold salmon in Canada, Australia and the U.K., testified: “I do not think it is a good thing to increase the restriction tax on Chinese from $50 to $100, or to have any restriction put upon the labour of the country. We must have cheap labour for production, where we have to compete in foreign markets, or to be forced out of the markets entirely. (P.144) “I look upon them (the Chinese) as steam engines or any other machine, the introduction of which deprives men of some particular employment, but in the long run, it enormously increases the employment.” (P.145)

(9) Frank Burnett, of Vancouver, President of United Canners Company Ltd., testified: “If no more Chinese came in, we would have no more difficulty in gettting all (the Chinese labour) we want. (P.148) “The increase of a tax from $50 to $100 I do not think amounts to anything. I think a higher poll tax would be advisable. I would not absolutely exclude the Chinese, but it (a high Head Tax) would prevent such a large number coming in. I am inclined to think too many have come in.” (P.149) “There is a parallel case in Manitoba. When the wheat crop comes on, they have to provide for the havesting by bringing white labourers in from the east and taking them back again when it is over. The same conditiions exist there. I was fifteen years in Manitoba and know how it was. It is a question whether the Canadian Pacific Railway could bring so many here, and take them back again to do the same here. The Chinese get well paid for the time they are working; it is not cheap labour by any means.Some of them would be employed for four months, and others for six or seven weeks; about two-thirds for only six or seven weeks.” (P.150)

(10) Thomas R. Smith of Robert Ward & Co, general agents, of Victoria testified: “I do not agree with an organized importation of labour. Exclusion would not affect trade between Canada and China and Japan. If I made a restriction against Chinese, I would also against the Japanese. I do not think it possible to get white labour to do the work in the canneries.The first labour employed inside the canneries consisted largely of Chinese.” (P.151)

“It would be unwise for a white man with a family to come into the province, unless he has something in view before he comes, because he would have to enter into competition with the labour that is in the market here.
It is just such a man as that who would go away disgusted with British Columbia, and injure the province, because he could not live here and compete.” (P.152)

(11) Charles F. Todd, wholesale grocer and salmon canner, testified: The Washington State canneries use traps (long devices averaging 1200 feet in length immersed in navigable waters–P.146) to catch most of their fish. They are able to keep the fish alive “between the runs of the schools…until such time as they are able to use them”. It works to the advantage of the labourer in giving them a longer season to work and more constant work. In the canning industry, where there is great competition, it is necessary to have the same conditions as elsewhere in order to compete.” (P.154)

(12) Lee Soon, who has been in Canada for 16 years, and in the canning business for 5 years, testified: “I have got about $30,000 of capital invested. I have ten partners, some are here and some of them are in China. I employ about eighty to one hundred hands….I would like to see the head tax remain as it is now, $100, and not increased any further.” (P.155)

(13) Thomas Robinson…, Assistant to the Inspector of Fisheries, testified: The number of cannery employees has increased from 14,227 in 1896 to 20,262 in 1900. “As to the employment of Chinese in canneries, in my opinion the present conditions are unnatural. The Chinese were here, were brought here from the east and the canners have made use of them, but I think that with white help they could have done the same work. We have depended on the Chinese till we think we need them, until we seemingly need them. Some people have worked themselves into the belief that they are necessary. We have created the necessity by our action in using them.” (Pp.155-156)

(14) John C. Kendall, fisherman of New Westminster, testified: “If the Chinese and Japanese continue to come in here, I will either have to leave or starve. The Mongolians have cut me out of everything as well as they have done in the fishing. During the three years I have been here, I have only been able to secure work for four months outside of the fishing. I cannot get work outside of the city. I have met white men with tears in their eyes starving, and could not get work because of the Chinese and Japanese here.” (P.157)

(15) George Mackie, fisherman, of New Westminster, testified: “The presence of the Mongolians not only prevents immigration of white people, but it drives many people who are here out of the country.” (P.157)

(16) Rev. John Perry Bowell, clergyman of the Methodist Church, New Westminster, testifies: “I am personally acquainted with a large number of fishermen (who were also skilled mechanics, carpenters and shipbuilders). Since the influx of Chinese these same people are pretty severely tested. Many of them had to go all over the province seeking employment, and a large number had to leave the country. Nearly all of them were men with families.” (P.157) “I would call a fair remuneration in this country not less than $1.50 a day. The question to be considered is, will cheap Chinese benefit the employer and injure the labourer?” (P.158)

(17) M.J. Coulter, V.P. of Fishermen’s Union, testified: “In the fishing industry, they (the Chinese and Japanese) are not individual but contract labour. The canneryman engages white men individually, but when he wants Chinese or Japanese, he goes to a Chinese or Japanese boss and says: how many men can you supply me with, and he gets them at so much a head.” (P.158)

(18) Thomas Sheaves, fisherman, of New Westminster, testified: “It would not do for white people to depend altogether on the work they would get inside the canneries, but there would be a great many good white settlers if there were not Chinese or Japanese in the province. I want to make a living in my own country and I want to have justice.” (P.159)

(19) Alfred Totterman, fisherman, of Steveston, testified: “If there were no Chinese or Japanese here, there would be no difficulty in getting a sufficient number of white and Indian fishermen, citizens of the country, to do all the fishing, and to secure all the canneries require.” (P.159)

(20) John S. Fraser, of New Westminster, testified: “The conditions existing now are alarming. They alarm me, because I have still in this province three sons, and I am very anxious for their future. When I see the central school up here dismissed at noon, and see the large number of boys coming out there, I stand and pause and think (about) what they are going to do. Where are they going to get work? These are questions that frighten me. They cannot compete with the Chinese respectably. Some provision must be made for them, and if the Chinese and Japanese are allowed in this country, these boys will be driven out of their own country and have to seek a living on the other side (in the U.S.). (P.159)

(21) Summary of canning industry: “The canning procress is almost entirely in the hands of the Chinese. Cannery owners contract for the work with a Chinese boss, who is usually backed by a firm of Chinese merchants. The contractor is required to supply all the labour necessary to operate the cannery to its full capacity at the height of the season.”(P.164) “Without an exception, the canners stated that the industry at the present time and under existing conditions could not be carried on successfully without the aid of Chinese.” (P.165) “…the almost exclusive employment of Chinese through their boss contractor, who naturally employs his own countrymen where available, has practically shut the door against whites and Indians and prevented them from learning the business.” (P.167) The exclusion of further Chinese is not likely to seriously affect this industry, for there are sufficient Chinese already in the province to meet the demand for years to come. The change…may be met by the employment of whites and Indians. On (Puget) Sound where the Exclusion Act has been in force for many years and the number of Chinese has decreased in the last decade, it has not retarded the development of this industry, but on the contrary it has received its chief expansion during this period….” (P.167)

(22) Domestic Servant Industry: Most of the domestic servant jobs in Eastern Canada are occupied by young white girls, but in B.C., most are held by Chinese males. Most of the domestic service jobs across the border in Washington State were occupied by white girls. In B.C., the Chinese received between “$10 to $30 per month in private families, and from $25 to $45, and in some cases even higher in hotels”. Over 1050 Chinese were employed in domestic service in B.C. (P.167) Experience in Eastern Canada (where there were very few Chinese and Japanese) and in the U.S. (where there were some Chinese and Japanese but where the Chinese Exclusion Law was in effect) showed that “this question like others will adnjust itself to the new conditions”. (P.175)

(23) Laundry Industry: “…probably from eight hundred to one thousand Chinamen are engaged in this business (laundries). They do their work well, and are, in many places where steam laundries do not and cannot exist, a great convenience, but at the same time they take the place of many poor people who would find in this employment an addition to their tinted means.
” This may be looked upon as a trivial matter, but in the aggregate it is large. Doubtless the work is done cheaper than it would be by cheap labour, but a large proportion of the money paid for the service does not return into circulation, but, as in the case of other employments, passes out of the country. There is probably paid out in wages to Chinese laundrymen in British Columbia over $200,000 a year, a small proportion of which benefits the country at large.” (P.177)

(24) Merchant Tailoring Industry : Skilled labour occupations such as merchant tailoring have felt the coming of the Chinese. James A. Grant, merchant tailor in Victoria for 15 years, testified: In Victoria in 1891, there were 18 tailor shops employing 150 white men and women and paying wages of $109,000 per year. A Tailors’ Union existed with a membership of 130. In 1901, there were only 50 white tailor workers employed in Victoria and total wages per year had been reduced to $22,464. Chinese merchant tailors had entered the tailoring business in 1891 and had displaced many of the white workers. In Victoria, by 1901, there were 14 firms of Chinese tailors, employing 84 hands, and manufacturing all grades of clothing. (P.177)

(24) John Logg, tailor of Victoria testified: “I came here in 1889. I stayed two years at that time; conditions were very good. My wages averaged over $20 a week. Now the average wage is about $12 a week….The Chinese came into competition and are taking almost the whole trade. Our business will be wiped out. If things do not change, and that soon, I will leave with my family, and leave the country. It seems to apply to other trades as well as our own. It will stop the flow of immigration into this country.” (P.178)

(25) Tim Kee, a Chinese tailor of Victoria, testified about the cost of lodging and board for Chinese tailor workers. He said that a labouring man paid between $4 and $4.50 per month for board. If 6 lived together in one $3 to $5 rented room, they would pay 50 cents to 83 cents a month each for the room. (P.180)

(26) Alexander Peden, journeyman tailor of Victoria, testified: About ten years ago, Mr. Jackson (my boss) employed sixteen or seventeen hands. He paid them as high as $20 per week, and it has just fallen away…. I attribute the falling off wholly to the Chinese. We cannot compete with their prices at all. A suit the Chinese make up for $14 , we could not make up for less than $22 or $23.” (P.180)

(27) Wholesale Clothing Industry: “The wholesale manufacture of clothing in the province is chiefly centred in Victoria. White women and girls and Chinese are largely employed in this industry, but the Chinese have almost entirely displaced white labour in some branches.” (P.181) One Commissioner asked the following question to George A. Kirk, wholesale merchant of Victoria, regarding the Chinese labour he employed: “Don’t you see that if you employ that class of labour in your trade, the final result will be that other trades will employ the same class of labour?” Mr. Kirk’s answer: “Yes.” (P.182)