VANCOUVER -- British Columbia is well known for its spectacular wilderness landscapes and, with its position on the west coast of Canada, being the gateway to an Asia that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Over the past several decades, the province has lured such a major influx of Asian immigrants that two municipalities in Metro Vancouver have populations with more than 50 per cent speaking languages other than English and, for that matter, French.
Most people agree this rapidly-changing face of B.C. promotes diversity, new ideas and new jobs.
What most people don't know, however, is that a troublesome part of the history of the province is a dark secret of discrimination, racism and inequality. Close to 140 legislative records and motions recently released indicate B.C. was, from the early 1870s to the late 1930s, trying to do its utmost to make life miserable for Chinese, Japanese and South Asians through immigration and employment restrictions, voting bans and ethnic taxes. The most vilified ethnic group was the Chinese.
Sometime this spring the Liberal government says it is going to apologize to Chinese-Canadians for a shockingly repulsive past that resulted in B.C. being described as "a white man's province." But Victoria won't be adding a cash compensation package, saying the federal government already did that in 2006 when it formally apologized to those who paid a "head tax" to get into the country and began sending out $20,000 payments to about 785 people who were charged the head tax or their surviving spouses.
Sid Tan, who helped start the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, applauds the provincial government for planning to address its racist past with an apology but says Victoria's refusal to include compensation is wrong.
Tan points out the federal government collected about $23 million in head taxes across the nation and returned $9 million to the B.C. government. Noting Ottawa began charging the head tax, which eventually grew to $500 per person in the late 1880s, Tan said the $9 million transferred to B.C. would be worth about $1.2 billion today.
He adds, however, that if B.C. wants to put this sorry history of discrimination behind it the province should give the head tax families the $9 million back, perhaps through a tax refund, and let them decide what sort of legacy the money could provide.
"If the government takes $1 from my family or me unjustly and says sorry," Tan asks, "does that mean they don't have to give that $1 back to my family or me?"
Noting his grandfather was required to pay the $500 head tax in 1919 to enter Canada, and was separated from his wife for about 25 years because of exclusionary policies, Tan, 64, says B.C. in those earlier years was deemed "a white man's province" because of colonialism, capitalism and ignorance.
"I think we should try and close this issue," he said in an interview. "It's a dark chapter in Canadian history."
Indeed it is and the B.C. legislature was right at ground zero of this travesty. In fact, many of the anti-immigration acts endorsed by Victoria were so far over the top that Ottawa, being the senior government but no saint when it came to its own treatment of non-white new Canadians, disallowed them.
B.C.'s disgraceful legislative history was further exposed recently when the NDP opposition released about 140 records showing provincial-government-backed discrimination against Canadians from China, Japan and South Asian nations. The archival records included immigration, employment and voting restrictions, depending on ethnicity.
Bill Chu, chairman of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, says B.C.'s poor treatment of Chinese and other non-white ethnics is similar to the apartheid regime and slavery.
Chu is right when he says people who are not Chinese-Canadians should also be involved in learning about B.C.'s past injustices if the broader society is to heal from long-established racist policies that practiced divide-and-conquer exploitation.
"This is not just about the Chinese," Chu added. "This is about us as human beings."
Too true. And the real issue here in B.C. is for everyone -- from those in governments to landowners paying taxes -- to stop pretending history doesn't matter because it occurred such a long time ago. Try telling that to Canadians from China, Japan or South Asia.
Try telling that to aboriginal groups who have been in B.C. for about 10,000 years, far longer than Europeans and other immigrants, and are still waiting for meaningful land claims agreements.
B.C. may no longer be a white man's province but it is still far from being fully integrated. A $9-million payment to Chinese-Canadians forced to pay the head tax would be a good next step towards reconciliation.
Chris Rose is a Vancouver writer
and the Winnipeg Free Press
West Coast correspondent.