Responding to the government apology for historic wrongs against Chinese British Columbians: Speech by Sid Chow Tan

From November 17, 2013 until January 31, 2014, the BC government held public consultation sessions so that people could express their opinions about the wording of the formal apology that the government plans to give the Chinese Canadian community for historical wrongs. Sid Chow Tan and Anushka Nagji spoke at the session that was held in Vancouver at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Vancouver on January 12th. Here’s what they said.

Speech by Sid Chow Tan

I acknowledge and thank the Coast Salish First Nations. Minister Teresa Wat, Elders, dignitaries, brothers, sisters and friends.

Sid Chow Tan speaks at the consultation forum, January 12, 2014
Sid Chow Tan speaks at the consultation forum, January 12, 2014

The power of an apology is with the receiver. My name is Sid Chow Tan. Proudly Canadian and a forty year resident of BC, I liken my being in Saltwater City Vancouver as winning life’s lottery.

The BC Government’s efforts to address its racist past is welcomed. With more effort, the BC Government can bring a provincial closure to the Chinese head-tax and exclusion file. Imagine an inclusive, just and honourable redress.

We all stand before history. We are a species of ideas, words and action. The ideas are of justice and honour, married to the words of an apology, and manifest in action. The action is a made-in-BC solution for redress of 62-years of made-in-BC Chinese head-tax and exclusion legislation.

The surviving affected elderly seniors of exclusion are not history. They must be the priority of a BC Government all-party apology. I applaud Head Tax Families Society of Canada for its call to the BC Government for a symbolic and meaningful refund of the unjust tax the province received as its share of Chinese head-tax collected by the Canadian Government.

The BC treasury has been unjustly enriched by close to $9-million. An apology must acknowledge the wrongdoing and injustice, be redemptive to the giver, healing for the receiver, and include an ample measure of restorative justice.

Without financial considerations, this apology is words without action. The BC Government can make a meaningful and symbolic gesture of refunding the close to $9-million in unjust tax to those families who paid it.

It is these families who should determine any legacy initiatives arising from the apology. What better legacy than an inclusive just and honourable redress and closure of the file for the BC Government?

It is very Canadian and British Columbian to ask for the refund of an unjust tax.

If you take a dollar from my family or from me unjustly and apologize, does that mean you can keep the dollar?

It is good that the power of an apology rests with the receiver.

Thank you for the pleasure of speaking with you.

A community organiser and media producer, Sid Tan is a founder of Head Tax Families Society of Canada, Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council and ACCESS Community Television.

Speech by Anushka Nagji

Anushka Nagii speaks at the Consultation Forum, January 12, 2014
Anushka Nagii speaks at the Consultation Forum, January 12, 2014

The story of Canada is not a tale of brave European explorers and a vast untamed wilderness. It is a sordid tale of genocide and colonization, unjust laws, racism, oppression, and exclusion.

This nation was built on the backs and blood of the first people who live here. It is a history, untold and untaught, of pain and destruction, privilege and power, most of which continues to be unacknowledged and unaddressed. Today, we gather here invited by those who say they govern this province, about an apology for the pain and suffering that hundreds of Chinese immigrants were subjected to by this province.

This government cannot offer an apology. An apology is an agreement made by the person who does a wrong to those who are wronged. It is the person who does the wrong agreeing, acknowledging and taking responsibility for the wrong and offering a remedy, or at the very least agreeing not to wrong again. The wronged party agrees to forgive. But there will be no taking of responsibility, no remedy, not even a promise not to wrong again by this government. No, this will not be an apology, this will not be redress. This will be a hollow and shameless political exercise of privilege, power and publicity.

We only have to look at the actions of this very same government to know this is true. The ethnic voting scandal told us that this government is using apologies as a tool to get power and push through legislation that continues to be informed and tainted by the same racist and destructive intent as the legislation that instated the head tax itself. Apologies offered in the past by federal and provincial governments to communities of colour provide further evidence of the state’s lack of commitment to redress and reconciliation. While offering an apology to Indigenous survivors of the residential school system and their families, this state, in defiance of court orders, refused to release documents that would bring to light the extent of abuse and trauma residential schools inflicted on these families. And in almost the same breath as the apology for residential schools was given, the Prime Minister stood on an international stage to say that this country has no history of colonialism. What then was that apology for and what then was that apology worth?

Government records indicate that at least 89 discriminatory laws and 49 discriminatory resolutions were passed by the province between 1872 and the late 1930s. The laws limited Chinese migration in order to maintain a “white man’s province.” Various head taxes collected over 38 years amassed some $23 million for the government. This was nearly the amount necessary to pay for the Western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway that was largely constructed by Chinese labourers. The value of the head tax collected between 1885 and 1923 from 97,000 Chinese immigrants to Canada in today’s funds, according to historian Henry Yu, is over 1.5 billion dollars.

Today I stand in solidarity with the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association Human Rights Committee and the South Asian Komagata Maru community in demanding real redress, a refund of the $9 million of head tax collected by the BC treasury. The province and the entire nation were enriched at the expense of those forced to pay the head tax. This enrichment was unjust and wholly indefensible. Yet, there is no proffering of any kind of remedy, no answer to the call for justice and repayment led by the Head Tax Families Society of Canada.

Will this consultation process be taken seriously? Will the call for justice and real redress be heard by you today? Or will this be another example of provincial political posturing and a not so subtle play for power and politics?

Anushka Nagji is a digital journalist based in Victoria, BC. She describes herself as a student of law, an avid dreamer, a poet, and terribly idealistic.


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