What is the Chinese Head Tax in Canada? 

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Like many others, the Chinese have a long history of immigrating to Canada. In the late 1800s, there was a large influx in the number of Chinese to arrive. A large number of immigrants came to help work on the build of the Canadian Pacific Railway, while others came for different opportunities like logging and working on farms. 

For some, the rise in Chinese immigration was seen as a wonderful thing – Chinese often took on low-status jobs that were unwanted by others. But others were not as quick to warm up to Chinese immigration in Canada. Which leads us to the question – what is the Chinese Head Tax in Canada?

What was the Chinese Head Tax in Canada?

The Chinese Head Tax in Canada was a definitive sign of discrimination against the Chinese in the 1800s. Once the construction of the Pacific Railway was complete and immigrant workers were no longer needed, the government was quick to pass “the Chinese Immigration Act”. This act, enacted in 1885, stated that any Chinese immigrant to Canada must now pay a $50 head tax.

While $50 may not seem like a lot of money today, at the time it would have constituted a large portion of anyone’s paycheque. According to the Royal Commission, the average Chinese laborer only made $300 a year in 1885. After paying for housing expenses, food, and other necessities, it would be very difficult for anyone to save $50. 

This tax was a clear attempt to limit the number of Chinese immigrants into Canada, and no such tax has ever been before or since placed on any other group entering Canada. 

By 1902, Chinese immigration had not slowed and government officials decided to double the Head Tax from $50 to $100. By 1903, this Tax was once again increased to $500, or the equivalent to almost 2 years of salary.

What was the Chinese Exclusion Act?

By 1923, millions of Chinese had contributed to the economy by paying large sums of head taxes to enter Canada. It’s estimated that approximately 81,000 Chinese immigrants entered Canada during this time.

But as time went on, discrimination against the Chinese became even more prevalent and the Chinese Immigration Act was changed to the “Chinese Exclusion Act”.

Enacted in 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act completely banned Chinese from entering Canada. Any men who had immigrated to Canada hoping to one day bring their families over now faced devastation as no Chinese were allowed to enter the country at all. This act stayed in effect until 1947. 

You can learn more about the history of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act on the website for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

Readdressing the Chinese Head Tax

After the Chinese Immigration Act was finally repealed in 1947, there was a great fight amongst the Chinese Community for correction and compensation.

Decade-long campaigns were held, national organizations were created, lobbies were held, lawsuits were imposed, and protests and events were rallied – but all to no avail. Time after time the government turned down opportunities to redress the discriminatory Head Tax of the past. 

It was not until 2006 that the Conservative Party of Canada finally publicly acknowledged the wrongdoing and pledged to redress the Head Tax if they were elected that year.

As promised, when Stephen Harper was elected to Prime Minister, he publicly apologized to all Chinese who were forced to pay the tax, as well as to their families.

He furthermore put forth commitments to help finance projects within Chinese communities to right the wrongdoings of the past. During that year, $20, 000 was offered in redress to any remaining Chinese survivors who were forced to pay the original head tax. 

A historical recognition program was also placed into effect to educate Canadians about the impact of the discrimination that was faced by so many Chinese in the past. 

Is the redress still available today?

As of 2006, only 20 of the original Chinese immigrants who had paid head taxes were still alive, all of which received compensation for their taxes. Unfortunately, children and families of these immigrants are not able to apply for redress. For this reason, funds are no longer available. 

With that being said, as we move forward toward a brighter future, it’s important that we acknowledge the wrongdoings in the past so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and we should all be proud of how far we have come while still remembering those who faced adversity in our past. 

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Kareena Maya is a freelance writer focused on the personal finance and travel spaces. He frequently writes about credit cards, banking, student loans, insurance, travel rewards and more. His work has been featured in publications such as Forbes Advisor, Bankrate, Credit Karma, Finance Buzz, The Ascent and Student Loan Planner.

Kareena Maya is a freelance writer focused on the personal finance and travel spaces. He frequently writes about credit cards, banking, student loans, insurance, travel rewards and more. His work has been featured in publications such as Forbes Advisor, Bankrate, Credit Karma, Finance Buzz, The Ascent and Student Loan Planner.