The federal government announced this week that it is willing to pay millions of dollars to descendants of Chinese workers that were charged a head tax to enter Canada in the late 1800’s. Ottawa will apparently pay $12.5 million into a new foundation following negotiations with the National Congress of Chinese Canadians. (I wonder if this will be yet another foundation that will be out of the reach of our Auditor General.)
Chinese workers were used in the 19th century to help complete the Canadian Pacific Railway along with workers from many other nations. Those immigrants gladly accepted the offer for work. In 1885, when Chinese workers were no longer needed, a head tax of $50 was imposed to slow the immigration of Chinese citizens. The need for their services was over and the Canadian government did not desire such a large Chinese population. The head tax was eventually raised to $500 in 1903, roughly equivalent to two years wages, and in 1923 it was replaced altogether with the Exclusion Act, a law which prohibited Chinese immigration. That law remained on our books until it was repealed in 1967.
Looking back at much of our history, we can see that many events took place which we should not be proud of, things that today would not take place. Our early beginnings found our ancestors living in a time of great discrimination. Racism was accepted and tolerated. It was simply the way things were.
The question to ask, however, is if Canadians of today are morally responsible to make amends for things that happened decades, and sometimes centuries, ago. Are you and I responsible for the actions of our forefathers? Time moves forward and with that movement our cultures change. One could write an encyclopedia on the miscarriages of justice that have been perpetrated by governments and peoples throughout written history.
Are we going to have to constantly apologize for the past as our culture changes and moves forward? With each passing generation, things that were just a part of life become taboo and unacceptable. This will continue to be true for every new generation. When do we sit back and just accept that some things that transpired were unfortunate, perhaps even deplorable, but that those actions were just the way things were?
Myself, I am not familiar with the plight of my ancestors. I am sure somewhere along the line I come from peasants or settlers oppressed by the King of England. If so, it is done. I feel no intense desire or need to seek compensation or even an apology for deeds that were done in another era. I find that the present has enough to contend with without having to dwell on the past. Some actions, such as the holocaust, deserve to be remembered. Others, such as internments and immigration policies, should be relegated to the dust bins of history where they belong.
Do Canadians of Chinese descent dwell on this issue? If the answer is yes, then I would say to the Chinese, get over it. To the Italians who were interned during WWII, who the government is also paying off, I also say get on with life. We also interned many Canadians of Japanese ancestry. To all of these people I believe very strongly that our leaders should stand up, which they have, and apologize for the poor decisions that were made. The fact that they were made in different times should be stressed, but as far as monetary compensation, I don’t think that it is warranted.
It is today, the present. There were some bad decisions made by governments and people who found themselves in unfamiliar territory and new circumstances. Looking back, some of our decisions were horrible, but they were made to suit the times. As Canadians, we need to put the past to rest. As a country, regardless of our ancestry, we are now Canadians.
Let’s build on the future. The past is gone. Let it go.