Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act

In an era of racial intolerance and fear of competition from cheap Asian labour for jobs, politicians and unions both began pressuring the federal government to severely limit the entry of Chinese, Japanese and Indian immigrants into the country.

Starting in 1885, white hatred toward the Chinese forced the government into limiting the number of Chinese who could enter Canada. The immigration policy became a racist one. While Europeans were offered free land as an incentive to immigrate to Canada, the government, in 1885, created an entry tax (Head Tax) to curtail the number of Chinese that were allowed to settle in the country. Coming into Canada would now come with a price tag: every Chinese person wishing to settle in Canada had to pay $50 to the government.

This highly discriminatory law would have negative consequences on Chinese immigration. Because of the treatment they received, some Chinese opted not to bring their families into Canada, hoping to spare them the abuse they were subjected to. Other Chinese who were already established simply could not afford to bring family members over.

But despite the dissuasive effects of the punitive tax, part of the population would persist in believing that there were still too many Chinese entering Canada to steal jobs from “real Canadians”. In 1900, the entry fee was increased to $100 and then to $500 in 1903. This represented a considerable sum for the times, amounting to years of income, and was deliberately aimed at discouraging Chinese immigration.

From 1885 to 1923, more than 80,000 Chinese immigrants were required to pay this tax in order to gain entry into Canada. During that period, they were the only immigrant group that had to do so. The only exceptions made were for diplomatic staff, students, children born to Chinese parents in Canada and retailers with a capital of at least $2500.

In 1923, the government went further and adopted the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Exclusion Act, which outright prohibited Chinese immigration into Canada. During the next 24 years (1923-1947), no Chinese would come to Canada and some restrictions would remain until 1965. This law also prevented the Chinese already established here from bringing their families into their country.

For over six decades, these measures, founded on “race” and aimed exclusively at the Chinese, would be blatantly applied by the federal government. Canada isn’t the only country to have discriminated against Chinese. In 1850, the Australian colonies also put a limit on the number of Chinese immigrants allowed to enter. In 1882, the United States also adopted similar legislation to exclude the Chinese from immigration.

In 1947, the Canadian law on exclusion was finally repealed.