humchop header derekhum
ph&fax email

Current Research

Aspects of the Chinese Head Tax (with Barry Ferguson)

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 aimed at restricting rather than excluding the Chinese from BC and the rest of Canada. The Act regulated the number of Chinese who could disembark from ships entering Canada (through a passenger/tonnage formula) and it stipulated that each immigrant must pay a "capitation tax", otherwise known as a "head tax" prior to getting the right to disembark. Although certain occupational groups were exempt (notably merchants, clergy, and later teachers), the majority of Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923 were labourers (usually claiming to be unskilled workers or farmers) who paid a "head tax" that varied from $50.00 during the 1880s and 1890s to $500.00 after 1903. All told, over the period of the head tax, some 82,000 people, the vast majority males, paid a total of over $18 million for the right of entry into Canada.

The effect of this legislation was constraint but not exclusion, a policy that differed strongly from the tirelessly repeated goal of exclusion as expressed by the majority of BC's politicians and labour leaders. Indeed, both the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 , subsequent revisions to it and key case law decisions, made it clear that Canadian legislation regarding the Chinese had a simple goal. That goal was to make a limited supply of Chinese labour available for Canadian industry but to restrict and constrain the competitiveness and the way of life of Chinese. It was not an attempt to shut down altogether the inflow of Chinese.

Chinese labourers were burdened by a tax that almost certainly constituted a significant debt for most of them, particularly after the tax was raised to $500 in 1903. The high cost of the tax meant also that Chinese in Canada were also inhibited from either sending for spouses or finding wives from the very limited female migrant population. Provisions of the tax also meant that exits from, and re-entries to, Canada were highly restricted, too. Finally, other legislative measures aimed at the Chinese, including restrictions on property-holding and occupational choice and, above all, on political rights in the form of disenfranchisement legislation, further confined their lives.

Various aspects of the Head Tax are being investigated, and publiished, on an ongoing basis.


Back to Current Research

Teaching Philosophy | Course Outlines | Current Research | Publications | Curriculum Vitae | Links