What were the motives of the Chinese Head Tax in Canada, and to what extent were the impacts felt?


In order to better understand why the Chinese head tax is a part of Canada’s history and how it affected the Chinese immigrant population of Canada, I first had to look into what the tax was specifically.


What was the Chinese Head Tax in Canada?

The Chinese Immigration Act was the first ethnicity based anti-immigrant legislation in Canada. The Chinese head tax was put in place in 1885 under the act and only removed in 1923 when it was replaced by a total ban on Chinese immigration to Canada that lasted for 24 years. The price was per person with the exception of diplomats, government representatives, tourists, merchants, scientists and students, although some of these parties became no longer exempt as the Chinese Immigration Act was amended. Each person was originally required to pay $50, then the price was raised to  $100, then $500. Chinese immigrants with leprosy, infectious diseases, or who were sex workers were banned completely from entering Canada, and there were additional restrictions on the number of Chinese immigrants allowed on each boat based on the ships’ weight.


Now that I understood what the head tax looked like, I was able to begin investigating why the tax and immigration act were established in the first place, especially seeing as they were so dramatically different from the policies applied to any other ethnicity in Canada at the time.

Chinese Immigration Certificate

What were the motives for establishing the tax?

The head tax was instituted following an influx of over 15,000 chinese immigrants coming to Canada in the 4 years leading up to the ban as a result of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many Chinese people also immigrated to Canada for logging, farming, and merchant work opportunities. Many of these people found themselves in undesirable, dangerous, and low-paying positions that were not wanted by other Canadian residents. When Chinese labour was no longer essential to the completion of the railway, the Canadian government attempted to discourage further Chinese immigration by placing a financial burden on potential immigrants. The costs of the tax rose as the Chinese immigration rates did not see a sufficient decline, resulting in the final fee of $500 being equal to 2 years’ salary or the cost of 2 homes. There was no other ethnic group required to pay such a tax.


After investigating the cause of the tax, it was time to explore the consequences. What did the tax mean to Chinese Canadian communities? Was the Canadian government successful in its mission to halt the dramatic Chinese population increase in Canada?


To what extent were the impacts of the tax felt in the Chinese Canadian community?

One of the major implications of the tax was the most extreme gender imbalance that Canada experienced within an ethnic group until the end of World War 2, with men outnumbering women 28-1. Many of these men had arrived in Canada with the intent of saving enough money to bring their spouses and children into Canada, through the ban on Chinese immigration in 1923 left many families separated and many immigrants alone. Even after the ban was lifted, very few Chinese immigrants were allowed into Canada before 1967. Through the many amendments to the Chinese Immigration act that lifted and placed restrictions on various parties, 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid the tax over the 38 years in which it was established. Nearly $23 million was brought in to the National Government from the tax. Between 1881 and 1921 the Chinese population in Canada increased from 4,383 to 39,587 despite the tax policy. Under the act, Chinese immigration certificates were issued to each individual coming to Canada, and were required for re-entry to the country after temporary travel. The act also established a system of 19 columns worth of information that were documented for each Chinese immigrant between 1885 and 1949 in handwritten books, the most information required of any immigrant group arriving in Canada.


Record of Chinese Immigrants along with 19 columns of personal information



Along with the tax, many other restrictions were applied to the Chinese community to segregate them from the white population. These included separations in many public facilities such as swimming pools and movie theatres. Chinese immigrants were especially vulnerable to deportation as systemic racism ran through the government system, leaving immigration officials looking for reasons to send Chinese Canadians back to China. White Canadian citizens were oppressive and discriminatory to Chinese immigrants, behaviour which established psychological stress on Chinese Canadians for generations and which has never been completely eradicated.  


With this knowledge, I began to seek out information regarding what kind of closure was received by those affected by the tax. I expected to find political statements of regret and widespread financial redress, seeing as this is a topic I haven’t really heard about previously. There must have been some kind of progress if the implications of the head tax are no longer a large part of the Canadian national discussion, right?


What action was taken in an attempt to help heal the wounds caused by the Chinese Immigration act?

In 1983, Dak Leon Mark and Shack Lee placed a request for a refund of their $500 head tax payments from their MP, which was denied, cultivating a national push for retribution. Demands for compensation included requests for financial repayment, an official apology, political acknowledgement of the discriminatory nature of the act, and educational foundation funds. Lawsuits, protests, and national campaigns faced the government through 2006, when an official apology was presented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the house of commons.


Stephen Harper pledged “symbolic payments to living head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers.” and “funds to help finance community projects aimed at acknowledging the impact of past wartime measures and immigration restrictions on the Chinese Canadian community and other ethnocultural communities.”


Even so, only 785 head tax payers, spouses, and descendants received payments in 2009. Head tax compensation continues to be fought for in Canada, even 95 years after the tax was abolished. Many generations of head tax payer’s children have grown up in Canada since the establishment of the Chinese Immigration act, and yet little closure has been provided for these affected families. How could such a large scale example of systemic racism in Canada manage to fall out of our list of concerns? As I learn more about the history of various cultural groups in Canada, I begin to draw connections between the treatment and attitude towards who the white settler population deemed as ‘other’ to Canada. I am also able to see how our history has built the Canadian environment in which we live now, and how strings of unresolved Canadian conflict and discrepancy continue to linger in our everyday lives. Although Canada has worked to become viewed as peaceful, loving, and accepting, we still have a long way to go before we can begin to move forward from the rocky events of our past.




Chinese Head Tax