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Finding Mrs. Wongs: The Big and Small of Chinese Head Tax Redress

by Sid Chow Tan

She is ninety-seven and lives independently near Commercial Drive. Mrs. Wong, the second wife of a Chinese head tax payer, came to Canada in 1949 shortly after the repeal of Chinese exclusion. By then she says she was too old to have children. Her adopted son lives next door in the modest rooming house of four apartments she bought herself, several years after her husband died in 1967. She has her husband's original replacement head tax certificate issued in 1916, her immigration papers from 1949 and her husband's death certificate. There is concern is with establishing her conjugal relationship, an ironic reminder the next day is International Women's Day

Volunteers from the Head Tax Families Society of Canada are assisting Mrs. Wong to claim the $20,000 ex-gratia – without legal obligation – payment by the Government of Canada to surviving Chinese head tax payers and spouses of deceased head tax payers.

On June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in Parliament for the 62-years of targeted racist legislation towards Chinese immigrants to Canada from 1885 to 1947. However, his government's unilaterally imposed settlement did not offer the ex-gratia payment to redress-seeking elderly sons and daughters affected by the tax and scarred from family-separating exclusion. To date, only some 600 families have successfully claimed the payment. No doubt a generation of head tax payers and spouses died during the 23-years of foot-dragging by successive Conservative and Liberal governments. That the matter is not resolved underscores this shameful chapter of Canadian history towards our Chinese forbears. Affected children and even grandchildren of head tax payers suffered and deserve an inclusive just and honourable redress.

Perhaps more shameful is the Government of Canada's continued treatment of those families seeking such a redress. Over 82,000 families paid the head tax totalling nearly $23-million - the cost of building the trans-Canada railway completed in 1885. You could say the lo wah kiu – old overseas Chinese - were instrumental in completing the most difficult and dangerous Rocky and Coast Mountain sections of the nation-building railway and paid for all of it. Now the spawn of these Gold Mountain adventurers and pioneers have organised to say to the government the redress is incomplete. They have taken to the streets in protest and demonstration, exercising their rights and vote. They are fully participating in the political process, some for the first time. These grannies and grandpas are inspiring Canadians who have much to teach about enduring and prevailing.

But this is far from the mind of Mrs. Wong, who proudly points out the rooming house business license above the five-gallon pails of stored rice and cooking oil. Almost a century of living has left her stooped, cane wielding, slow walking and extremely lucid. Mrs. Wong is concerned about the success of the application. The key is establishing the conjugal relationship. There is no record of marriage from China, which typical among this generation. Her immigration paper states her surname as "WONG nee KWONG", which is consistent with the other documents with her husband's name. The application form is completed, documents gathered and readied to be notarized, copied and mailed.

Here, it is appropriate to recognize and acknowledge the claims of the indigenous people of this land we call Canada. The struggles of Chinese head tax families do pale in the light of our First Nations' five hundred year experience of racism and attempted genocide. Not surprisingly, due to intermarriage and the common experience of racism, Chinese and First Nations' stories are beginning to surface.

Notably, as told in A Tribe of One - a film about Rhonda Larrabee growing up Chinese with a secretive First Nation's mother in Chinatown. In fiction, you have Sky Lee's seminal novel Disappearing Moon Café and in food, editor Brandy Lien Worrall's Eating Stories, A Chinese Canadian and Aboriginal Potluck. Also worthy of note are current racial profiling and security certificates issues and our so-called "guest worker" policy.

Mrs. Wong and the volunteers agree on a notary – Reg Chow in Chinatown. She occasionally takes the bus to Chinatown and back. Today she seems pleased when we say we are going by car. In the Main Street office, Mrs. Wong swears before Mr. Chow an Affidavit she was in a conjugal relationship with Mr. Wong (the head tax payer). Copies of supporting documents are notarized and after some discussion by all, it is agreed to mail the application by registered mail. Mrs. Wong insists on going to the post office, two blocks away, to witness and pay for the mailing. Mr. Chow waives his fees in these applications. He said about an earlier applicant, "If it wasn't for people like her, I wouldn't be here."

Sadly, the Harper government has bungled this redress. In what should be the beginning of healing and reconciliation, there is bitter sweetness and anger. By excluding the affected elderly sons and daughters of head tax payers, the authors of the 2006 unilaterally imposed settlement took an issue of justice and honour and turned it into photo opportunities and pandering for votes. Nearly 4,000 affected families have registered with redress-seeking groups across Canada to press for an inclusive and meaningful redress. Recompense is not and nor should it be the issue. Any monetary sum offered could only be symbolic. The issue is closure with respect and dignity for Chinese head tax families and all Canadians. This begins when the government recognises the redress is incomplete and undertakes good faith negotiations with representatives of excluded head tax families. Indeed, is not the issue really about arrogant and dismissive governments, past and present?

Later that evening, Mrs. Wong phoned and reported a friend needed some help with her application. This other Mrs. Wong was bedridden in Chinatown and doesn't have any children. Of course, volunteers have already been notified. It would be fitting to call on her on International Women's Day.

March 31, 2008 is the deadline to apply for ex-gratia payments by surviving Chinese head tax payers and spouses of deceased head tax payers or by families of eligible claimants alive on February 6, 2006. Family members and caregivers can ask appropriately of elderly seniors if they are possible eligible claimants. With known intermarriages, there maybe eligible claimants outside Chinese ethnic groups, particularly in aboriginal communities.

Behind the certificates

Behind each certificate is at least one story. More often than not there are three or more. Join is here and in Behind the certificates pages for some of these stories.