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Chinese Immigration to Canada: The Practice of the Head Tax (1885)

This month, we celebrate Asian Heritage in all its diverse forms and expressions. Today, there are many famous Canadians of Asian descent who have thrived in Canadian society, from celebrated author Vincent Lam, figure skater and Olympic silver medal winner Patrick Chan, as well as the Right Honorable Adrienne Clarkson, governor general of Canada from 1999 – 2005. However, Chinese Canadians and other groups were not always as accepted as they are today.

The first documented arrivals of Chinese immigrants in Canada can be dated to the 18th century. In 1788, fifty artisans (likely carpenters) arrived with British Royal Navy Captain John Meares to build a trading post to encourage the trade in sea-otter pelts between Nootka Sound and Guangzhou, China. However, the Spanish wanted to make inroads for trade on the West Coast, drove out Captain Meares and took over the trading post for themselves. Several of these Chinese men settled in the area, possibly marrying Indigenous women as well.

In 1858, many Chinese gold-prospectors came up from San Francisco to take part in the gold rushes that were occurring in British Colombia at the time. As a result, Barkerville became the first Chinese community in Canada. By 1860, the Chinese population of Vancouver Island was estimated to be about 7,000 people. Additionally, the Canadian Pacific Railway imported thousands of Chinese workers to help them lay the railway track from the Prairies through to the Fraser Canyon in British Columbia.

Figure 1: Chinese man panning for gold in British Colombia, c. 1875. From Library & Archives Canada, Accession # 1981-219 NPC.

However, anti-Asian sentiment ran very high, particularly in British Colombia. The white majority in Canada disliked and distrusted the Chinese Canadian population, as it was believed that they were unable to assimilate fully into society. Furthermore, it was believed they would undermine the economy as they were more likely to take low-paying jobs and could therefore push out jobs for “respectable” Canadians.

Figure 2: Cover Image of the "Canadian Illustrated News", April 20th, 1879, showing a caricature of a Chinese man being turned away by a bearded politician. From Library & Archives Canada, Item ID # 2914880.

In 1885, due to negative feelings against Asian communities, the Canadian government passed a law that instituted a $50 “head tax” which every Chinese person needed to pay to enter Canada. Politicians in British Columbia were incensed and demanded that it should be raised to $100 Later, the federal government appointed a Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration (1902). The commission ultimately stated that Asians were “unfit for full citizenship…obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state” (cited in Chan, 2019). In 1903, the head tax was then raised to $500, making it virtually impossible for Chinese people to emigrate to Canada or bring their families or relatives over. On July 1st, 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act was replaced by even more strict legislation virtually suspending Chinese immigration. This law was not repealed until 1947.

If you want to learn more about the issues raised here, here are some books we can recommend! Check out “An Ocean Apart: The Gold Rush Diary of Chin Mei-Ling”, a book in the Dear Canada series. This is an extremely accessible book relating the daily joys and challenges of a young girl growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1922. If you want to take a deeper dive into the issues surrounding Chinese Canadians, we encourage you to read William Ging Wee Dere’s book “Being Chinese in Canada: The Struggle for Identity, Redress & Belonging”. Both of these books may be found in our library catalogue.

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