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Reasons for the Head Tax

Overview of the set

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Primary sources

1. Chinese Immigration Act 1885 |

2. The “Chinese question” in the British Columbia legislature |

3. The “Heathen Chinee” in British Columbia |

4. “John Chinaman” |

5. For a selective immigration policy |

6. The Oriental problem |

7. Sir Matthew Begbie’s comments on Chinese immigration |

8. Against Chinese immigration |

9. Support for Chinese-Canadians |

10. The root cause of anti-Chinese feeling |

Secondary sources

1. A white man’s province: The Government of Canada and the Chinese |

2. White Canada forever: West coast attitudes |

3. The Chinese in Canada: Anti-Orientalism |

4. Rereading Chinese head tax racism |

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Student tasks

Question: Why did the Canadian government pass the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885 that required Chinese immigrants to pay a $50 head tax?

Teacher notes

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Historical context for teachers

Early immigration and discrimination

  • The discovery of gold in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon triggered the first wave of Chinese immigration to Canada in 1859. Most of the Chinese immigrants came from California where they had arrived to take part in the 1849 California Gold Rush.
  • In addition to mining, Chinese immigrants became a source of cheap labour in British Columbia, building roads and clearing land.
  • The Chinese experienced prejudice and discrimination from the beginning of their arrival. In 1860, the House of Assembly of the Colony of Vancouver Island proposed a $10 tax for each Chinese person in the colony.
  • Anti-Chinese sentiments grew in British Columbia throughout the 1870s. Member of Parliament (MP) Amor de Cosmos, who was previously the Premier of British Columbia, petitioned Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in January 1879 demanding the restriction of Chinese immigration, the exclusion of Chinese labour from railway construction, and a tax on all Chinese residents. Macdonald did not support the petition.
  • In 1879, American contractor Andrew Onderdonk was granted the contract to build the British Columbia sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Aware of the anti-Chinese feeling in British Columbia, Onderdonk promised that he would only hire Chinese workers if there were no white workers available.
  • One month into construction, Onderdonk realized that it was going to be difficult to complete the railway on budget without cutting costs somewhere. He requested and was granted permission from the government to hire Chinese workers, who he could pay less than white workers. Onderdonk began hiring experienced Chinese railway workers from San Francisco and Portland. Between 1880 and 1881, over 1500 experienced Chinese railroad workers from the United States were hired.
  • In 1881, Onderdonk hired Chinese and non-Chinese labour contractors to recruit and transport workers directly from Chinese coastal provinces. There was an abundance of Chinese workers looking to emigrate because of social and economic upheavals. In total, over 17 000 Chinese immigrants arrived between 1881 and 1884, of which over 10 000 came directly from China.

The Royal Commission

  • In July 1884, the Government of Canada established a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration. Royal Commissions are made up of a panel of experts who investigate problems of national importance. After conducting their investigations, Royal Commissions issue a report to the Government of Canada who then decides the appropriate steps to take.
  • The 1885 Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration investigated the subject of Chinese immigration, Canada’s trade relations with China, and Canadians’ social and moral objections to Chinese immigration to Canada. It was led by Dr. Joseph Chapleau, the Secretary of State for the Canadian government, and Dr. John Hamilton Gray, a native British Columbian and Supreme Court judge.
  • The commissioners conducted interviews with 51 reputable witnesses in Victoria, New Westminster and Yale, using a list of 27 prepared questions. Almost all of the interviewees were white, except two Chinese witnesses who were both officials from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco.
  • In the final report, Judge Gray suggested that public opinion in British Columbia could be divided into three broad categories: a “well-meaning, but strongly prejudiced minority” who wanted to exclude all Chinese immigrants; an “intelligent minority” who [thought] that no legislation was necessary and Chinese immigration would disappear on its own; and a large majority who thought there should be a “moderate restriction” on Chinese immigration. Judge Gray recommended that a head tax of $10 be charged to every Chinese immigrant who arrived in Canada.

Head tax introduced

  • As the CPR was nearing completion in 1885, and the Report by the Royal Commission was released, the Canadian government, under Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, acted quickly and passed the Chinese Immigration Act—this required every Chinese worker and family member entering Canada to pay a $50 head tax.
  • The head tax was slightly higher than the $48 the 1884 Royal Commission estimated a Chinese labourer could save in a year after paying living expenses.
  • Governmental representatives, tourists, merchants, scientists and students carrying the appropriate identification were exempt from the tax.
  • Despite the $50 head tax, large numbers of Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. The head tax was later raised to $100 in 1900; however, this did not restrict Chinese immigration as over 8000 Chinese entered Canada in 1903 alone, the largest arrival of Chinese immigrants in a single year. When the $100 head tax failed to discourage immigration, it was raised to $500 in 1903—this was more than two years’ wages for the average worker.
  • Throughout the head tax period, from 1886 to 1923, 82 379 Chinese entered Canada and paid the Canadian government over $23 million. In comparison, European immigrants did not have to pay any fees or taxes when entering Canada, and many Europeans were offered incentives, such as free land, if they immigrated to Canada.

Other discrimination

  • In addition to the head tax, British Columbia passed numerous other anti-Chinese laws between 1875 and 1923. Chinese were not allowed to acquire Crown lands, prevented from working in underground mines, excluded from being admitted to provincially established homes for the aged and unwell, prohibited from being hired in any public sector jobs and disqualified from voting.
  • In February 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed (cancelled) and replaced by a new law, the Chinese Exclusion Act that disallowed any further Chinese immigration to Canada. The law came into effect on July 1, 1924, and was not repealed until 1947.


  • In 1984, Margaret Mitchell, an MP from Vancouver, raised the issue of repaying the Chinese head tax in the House of Commons. Soon after, 4000 head tax payers and their family members approached the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) to register their head tax certificates and ask the CCNC to help them ask the government for redress (remedy or compensation for a wrong).
  • Since 1984, various governments failed to adequately address the issue of redress until June 22, 2006, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, acting on behalf of the Government of Canada, apologized in the House of Commons for the Chinese head tax. As part of the official redress, 785 eligible applicants, including survivors of the head tax or any surviving spouses, received symbolic payments of $20 000.
  • Many in the Chinese Canadian community were not satisfied with the 2006 apology and redress because they argued that it was not just the handful of surviving head tax payers and their spouses who were victims of the tax, but also first-generation sons and daughters.