Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada

Discrimination in Chinese Immigration to Canada 1885-1947

Chinese Camp in Kamloops 1868
Chinese Camp in Kamloops 1868. Library and Archives Canada / C-016715

The first large influx of Chinese immigrants to stay in Canada came north from San Francisco following the gold rush to the Fraser River Valley in 1858. In the 1860s many moved on to prospect for gold in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia.

When workers were needed for the Canadian Pacific Railway, many were brought directly from China. From 1880 to 1885 about 17,000 Chinese laborers helped build the difficult and dangerous British Columbia section of the railway.

In spite of their contributions, there was a great deal of prejudice against the Chinese, and they were paid only half the wage of white workers.

Chinese Immigration Act and the Chinese Head Tax

When the railway was finished and cheap labour in large numbers was no longer needed, there was a backlash from union workers and some politicians against the Chinese. After a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, the Canadian federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, putting a head tax of $50 on Chinese immigrants in the hopes of discouraging them from entering Canada. In 1900 the head tax was increased to $100. In 1903 the head tax went up to $500, which was about two years pay. The Canadian federal government collected about $23 million from the Chinese head tax.

In the early 1900s, prejudice against Chinese and Japanese was further exacerbated when they were used as strike breakers at coal mines in British Columbia.

An economic slump in Vancouver set the stage for a full-scale riot in 1907. Leaders of the Asiatic Exclusion League stirred a parade into a frenzy of 8000 men looting and burning their way through Chinatown.

With the outbreak of World War I, Chinese labor was needed in Canada again. In the last two years of the war, the number of Chinese immigrants increased to 4000 a year.

When the war ended and soldiers returned to Canada looking for work, there was another backlash against the Chinese. It wasn't just the increase in numbers that caused alarm, but also the fact that the Chinese had moved into owning land and farms. The economic recession in the early 1920s added to the resentment.

Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which in effect stopped Chinese immigration to Canada for nearly a quarter of a century. July 1, 1923, the day the Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect, is known as "humiliation day."

The Chinese population in Canada went from 46,500 in 1931 to about 32,500 in 1951.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect until 1947. In that same year, Chinese Canadians regained the right to vote in Canadian federal elections. It wasn't until 1967 that the final elements of the Chinese Exclusion Act were completely eliminated.

Canadian Government Apologizes for Chinese Head Tax

On June 22, 2006, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a speech in the House of Commons giving a formal apology for the use of a head tax and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants to Canada.