Port of entry

by Yule Heibel on April 22, 2005

Oh my, I’m neglecting my poor blog… Well, there are still the technical glitches (iBook display wonky, psychadelic flimmering [ooh, yeah!], black-outs [my display, not me], battery dead, etc.), but it’s also the case that my life has been taken over by the Ministry of Evil Affairs, an arm of Her Majesty’s government determined to enmesh all mortals in the technobureaucractic nightmare of the scripted life. No, no, wait: what I mean is that the more I get involved in red tape and real life in my “real life,” the more it feels like there’s a vampire sucking out my lifeblood.

My excuses are feeble, however. Really, I’m spending too much time mulling over confounding issues. Like this:

Chinese workgang laying bricks

Here’s an issue that deserves as much positive energy in its sails as possible: Canadians for Redress. A couple of weeks ago, we went to see Karen Cho’s film, In the Shadow of Gold Mountain, courtesy of Open Cinema and Hermann’s Jazz Bar. Afterwards, there was the chance to participate in audience discussion with Sid Tan, David Lai (emeritus at UVic), and Charlayne Thornton-Joe, a Victoria City Councillor.

Even for those familiar with aspects of Chinese immigration to Canada and the vital Chinese contribution to the building of the railroad, the film was an eye-opener. Canada would not be a nation-state without the Trans-Canadian railroad — British Columbia, for example, made a completed railroad the precondition for joining Canadian Confederation. Had the railroad not been built, BC would no doubt have drifted into union with the United States of America. We also know that the railroad couldn’t have been built without Chinese labour. But what many of us don’t know is how badly the Chinese were treated by the Canadian government. Once the railroad was finished, Canadian politicians in BC and in Ottawa went on a desperate spree to rid Canada of the Chinese and, failing that, to stop further immigration and effectively to restrict Chinese to ghettos: they couldn’t vote, the couldn’t practice trades, they couldn’t even be reunited with their families. During years leading up to the time that Hitler and the Nazis were plotting genocide in Europe, Canadian politicians in Ottawa unashamedly used the phrase “Final Solution” in regard to “the Chinese problem.” (Soon Canada would also slam the door shut on Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.) After the film screening, one audience member remarked that for her, the common theme of railroads was highly (and darkly) evocative: it was used in Canada to unify the nation, even as the Chinese died by the thousands building it, and it was used in Germany to effect the “final solution.” It’s not typically a subject investigated in school.

Consider this: in 1923, on July 1 (the national holiday Canadians called Dominion Day, now Canada Day), the Canadian Government instituted the Exclusion Act, which wasn’t rescinded until after World War II, in 1947. The Exclusion Act forbade all further immigration of Chinese into Canada. The Chinese were the only ethnic or racial group singled out in this way; European immigrants meanwhile were offered financial incentives, along with free land, to entice their emigration to Canada. Since they were unable to bring their wives, family members, or fiancĂ©es to Canada, the Exclusion Act effectively condemned the Chinese men already in Canada to exist in an enforced state of bachelorhood. Given the racist cast of the rest of Canadian society (Chinese were blamed for every social ill as well as every possible disease, including schizophrenia…), it was highly unlikely that these men would be able to intermarry into non-Chinese society. The Exclusion Act furthermore followed on the heels of decades of Head Tax levies, which again were only levied against the Chinese and no one else. One of the aims of the Redress movement is to get the Canadian government to apologise for the practice and to make restitution to the handful of remaining Head Tax survivors. By 1923, when Canada turned off the flow of Chinese immigration (incidentally at the urging of BC), the country had already collected a staggering $23 million in Head Tax from 81,000 Chinese immigrants. Half of that money went to the ports of entry for Chinese immigrants, which means that BC’s Victoria and Vancouver were the chief benefactors of the Head Tax. It began in 1855 with $50 per immigrant and had increased to a staggering $500 per head by 1903. According to some accounts, $500 then would be worth about $31,000 today. I read somewhere else that $500 could buy two houses in the early 20th-century. Imagine what $23 million represents in today’s money…

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