Head Tax

At the age of 3, Rhoda Chow was one of thousands of Chinese immigrants required to pay a head tax. Rhoda eventually married Lee Chiang Kai and moved to the West Kootenay community of Trail, where they raised a family and operated a restaurant. She and her husband eventually became Canadian citizens (courtesy Trail City Archives/1253).

Early North American Chinatowns grew and thrived after the gold rushes and the building of the railways. In China, the chaos of war, banditry, poverty and starvation, continued to drive men abroad to find work to support wives and children at home. The more the Chinese came, the more Caucasians in both the United States and Canada lobbied politicians to save them from the "yellow peril." The United States finally slammed the door shut on Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Canada's response to anti-Chinese sentiment was to appoint a Royal Commission. Subsequently, the government imposed a head tax on incoming Chinese labourers of $50, equal to the maximum one year's savings of a Chinese worker in Canada.

In 1901, Canada doubled the head tax to $100, and appointed a second Royal Commission. It concluded Chinese immigrants were obnoxious, dangerous and unfit for Canada. In 1904, the same year that the United States extended its Exclusion Act indefinitely, Canada raised the head tax to $500, equal to two years' gross earnings of a Chinese labourer here. Such were the dire conditions in China that after a brief respite, Chinese men resumed coming and in record numbers. But many lived in penury to pay their living costs here and to put rice in the mouths of those at home, as well as to repay what they had borrowed to go abroad.

Apology for the Head Tax

The head tax has always been a source of grievance in Chinese Canadian communities. Protests and demonstrations calling for an official apology and redress were staged across the nation. Under public pressure, Prime Minister Stephen Harper on 22 June 2006 offered an apology to Chinese Canadians for the country’s mistreatment of immigrants and offered a redress package that included millions for anti-racism education. Harper delivered the apology in both official languages and in Cantonese: Gar nar dai doe heem. An official directive made in Parliament ordered compensation for the head tax of approximately $20,000 to be paid to survivors or their spouses.

Learn more:
Text of the Formal Apology
From C to C: Chinese Canadian Stories of Migration