VICTORIA – Shui Lee endured decades of intolerance and racism in Canada just because he is Chinese, but on Thursday the 58-year-old restaurant owner said he is finally proud to be both Canadian and Chinese.
With tears in his eyes and holding the 1914 head-tax document belonging to his great, great grandfather, Lee described what British Columbia’s formal apology for racist and discriminatory government policies against Chinese immigrants means to him.
“When I walk out this door today, I feel so proud that I can put my head up and I tell everybody I’m proud to be Canadian,” he said. “I can be proud to be Chinese.”
Lee, a Kelowna, B.C., restaurant owner, said he often argued with friends, relatives and others about what he considered Canada’s racist and intolerant laws and policies towards Chinese immigrants, but was told not to rock the boat.
“They don’t want to apologize to you,” he said he was told. “But I prove it today, they are wrong. The government did apologize to us. And they admit they were wrong.”
Premier Christy Clark formally apologized for more than 100 racist laws, regulations and policies imposed starting over 140 years ago against Chinese immigrants, calling them a stain on the province’s history.
“While the governments which passed these laws and polices acted in a manner that was lawful at the time, today this racist discrimination is seen by British Columbians — represented by all members in this legislative assembly — as unacceptable and intolerable,” she said in the legislature.
“We believe this formal apology is required to ensure that closure can be reached on this dark period in our province’s history,” she said Thursday.
“The legislative assembly’s apology today signifies our deepest regret for the hardship and suffering our past provincial governments imposed on Chinese Canadians.”
Lee said his great, great grandfather paid a $500 head tax to enter Canada, but Yick Lee was prevented from bringing his family to Canada by federal anti-Chinese immigration laws
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 banned their immigration to Canada. Yick Lee was separated from his family until after 1947, when the law was repealed.
Shui Lee said his welcome to Canada in 1969 was anything but friendly.
“The first day when I go to school someone grabbed a rock and smashed my forehead,” he said. “They said, ‘go home. Go back where you came from.’ They spit on my face.”
Lee said he was crushed to his core.
“I feel why am I coming here?” he said. “I hate myself. I don’t want to be Chinese anymore. I lost my dignity. I feel shame to myself. But today, I finally, say thank you B.C. government.”
Thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in Canada starting in the 1880s to help build the country’s railway, but starting in 1885, the federal government imposed a head tax of $50, which rose to $500 by the early 1900s.
“Those first immigrants who were made to pay to come here made some of the biggest contributions,” Clark said.
“For every mile of track between Vancouver and Calgary one Chinese worker died.”
The apology, which does not include compensation, came after extensive public consultations that began last year and involved all provincial parties.
The Liberal government tabled its Chinese Historical Wrongs Consultation Final Report and Recommendations as part of its year-long development of the formal apology.
The report includes a recommendation for $1 million legacy funding to co-ordinate initiatives to celebrate the contributions of Chinese Canadians to British Columbia’s social, economic, spiritual and cultural history.
In 2006, the federal government offered an apology for the head tax and included $20,000 in compensation for families or survivors who paid the tax.
The Chinese Canadian National Council, which monitors racism against Chinese-Canadians, said it could not accept B.C.’s apology without some form of redress for people and families who paid the head tax.
The council said the federal government collected a total of $23 million from the head tax levies, of which about $8.5 million was transferred back to B.C., which converts to about $1 billion today.
“What we’re looking for is a symbolic return of these funds back to the head-tax families who paid it,” said CCCN spokesman Victor Wong.
The apology was also endorsed by the Opposition New Democrats, the Green party, and Independent members of the legislature.
The apology was set to be introduced last year, but the Liberal government delayed the ceremony due to a political scandal involving misuse of government resources and plans to manipulate ethnic votes through public apologies for long-standing historic wrongs.