Chinese Immigration Act of 1885
Following the recommendations published in the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration in 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act (the Act) was a Canadian Act of Parliament that placed a head tax of $50 on all Chinese immigrants coming to Canada. Assented on 20 July 1885, the intention of the Chinese Immigration Act was stated explicitly in its heading, reading "An Act to restrict and regulate Chinese immigration into Canada."
In the early 1880s during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, as many as 17,000 Chinese immigrants came to Canada to work as labourers. This was as a result of the cheap labour demand in the West. Major labour shortages in British Columbia and surrounding areas threatened the economic viability of the emerging Canada. Thus, as a way to bring the West economic efficiency, Chinese immigration was encouraged in the early 1880s. Furthermore, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was formed to physically unite Canada and required cheap labour to complete its construction. Founded in 1881, the CPR was completed on November 7, 1885 – "six years ahead of schedule – when the last spike was driven at Craigellachie, B.C." After its completion, the demand for Chinese immigration dropped dramatically and became dispensable.
Dissatisfaction with Chinese immigration grew and in 1885 a Royal Commission was appointed to obtain proof that restricting Chinese immigration would be in the best interests of the country. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald originally refused to introduce prohibitive measures, but eventually yielded and appointed the commission. The commission was entitled Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration in 1885 and interviewed hundreds of people with the goal of understanding the majority's view on Chinese immigration.
The Commission was led by Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau and John Hamilton Gray who gathered testimony regarding Chinese immigration at public hearings across British Columbia and compared these testimonies to those gathered on the Pacific Coast of the United States. The testimonies of 51 people were submitted. Only two Chinese witnesses were consulted: two officials from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Multiple viewpoints were reported, including some in favour of Chinese immigration on an economic efficiency scale. But, the overall consensus on the state of Chinese immigration was a vocalized demand for its restriction. Claims against the Chinese were slanderous and were found to have little evidence behind them. Despite this, the Commission recommended a moderate legislation against Chinese immigration and proposed a $10 head tax.
The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was enacted as a result of the findings of the Commission. The Act imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants, with the exceptions of diplomats, government representatives, tourists, merchants, "men of science", and students. The imposed duty of $50 was a significant increase from the $10 duty recommended by the Royal Commission.
This piece of legislation became the first in Canada's history to exclude immigrants on the basis of their ethnic origin. It also defined "Chinese Immigrant" in section 1 as "The expression 'Chinese Immigrant' means any person of Chinese origin entering Canada and not entitled to the privilege of exemption provided for by section four of this Act." Furthermore, vessels that were transporting Chinese immigrants were permitted to only carry one Chinese immigrant per 50 tonnes of the ship's weight. This law also prevented any Chinese immigrants who suffered from a contagious disease such as leprosy or any Chinese woman who was known to have been a prostitute. Therefore, the Act limited the number of Chinese immigrants so much so that legally, a 300-ton ship could only carry six Chinese immigrants to Canada. Furthermore, despite mass fervour towards the banning of Chinese immigrants in 1885, due to Canada being a colony under Britain, the passing of Chinese exclusion would not be possible. This was because the banning of Chinese immigrants did not fall with British interests at the time.
The Act was amended in 1887 to allow Chinese women who were married to non-Chinese men to enter Canada, as well as Chinese passing through Canada via railway. An additional amendment in 1892 required Chinese residents of Canada who wished to temporarily leave the country to register with an immigration official before departure.
In 1900, the head tax was raised to $100 by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, due to a still growing influx of Chinese immigrants. In 1903, this was further raised to $500. Companies in short supply of cheap labour would often advance this money to bring Chinese immigrants to Canada.
The Act was eventually superseded in 1923 by the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act (not to be confused with the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), which banned Chinese immigration entirely.
In the 1980s, voices for redress emerged in the Chinese-Canadian community. Organizations that strove for promoting the rights of all individuals, particularly those of Chinese Canadians, and encouraging their full and equal participation in Canadian society.
In the 1980s, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) began to collect head tax certificates and in 1984 "the CCNC presented the government with a list of names of 2,300 surviving Chinese who had each paid a head tax." A subsequent survey by CCNC "found that of the 867 respondents who completed the questionnaire, 46 percent were in favor of an official apology and a symbolic redress to the individual victims, while 38 percent also supported some form of community redress." In 1990, the CCNC successfully lobbied for political endorsement for a redress. By 1993, a redress proposal was submitted to the representatives of five groups including Chinese Canadians. At this time, the redress only offered an "omnibus apology." The offer was rejected by the Chinese Canadian groups and no resolutions were made that federal term.
As a result of the Act and its imposed head tax, a redress, with apologies and compensations, took place only officially in 2006. After the election of the minority Conservative government in 2006, Stephen Harper affirmed his position on Chinese immigration: "Chinese Canadians are making an extraordinary impact on the building of our country. They've also made a significant historical contribution despite many obstacles. That's why, as I said during the election campaign, the Chinese Canadian community deserves an apology for the head tax and appropriate acknowledgement and redress."
Effective August 29, 2006, Canada's redress program combined "payments to individual head tax payers, (or, if the payer is deceased, to their spouse) with funding for educative and commemorative programs."
The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 carried great weight as a result of it being the first of its kind in Canadians history and subsequently laying down the foundations for future further exclusionary policies and acts. The act laid down the legal framework for head taxes which was later refined even more harshly.
The aim of establishing a "white" society for Canada, as Kenneth Munro explains,"such discrimination flew in the face of that crucial premise of Canadian nationhood, namely, respect for diversity of culture and traditions."
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