Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Century-old racism case grips Chinese Canadians

AFP , VANCOUVER

Political fever is sweeping through Canada's Chinese communities, after the campaign for today's general election inflamed a century-old row over state-sponsored racism.

Politics is in the air in the teeming markets of Vancouver's Chinatown on Canada's Pacific coast, where residents were stung by racial discrimination in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Prior to 1930, more than 80,000 Chinese immigrants were forced to pay a special tax -- as much as C$500 (US$433) or two years' salary -- to enter Canada.

Now, their descendents want redress for the tax, which was imposed only on people from China by officials scared by a massive wave of immigration.

"It's the hottest issue for the Chinese community right now," said Christine Li of the Chinese Canadian National Council.

In 1923, the tax was replaced by a virtual ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted until 1947.

Long-time protests against the measures are finally being heard, 125 years after they began, as candidates mined for votes, ahead of today's national election.

Already, many politicians have personally apologized or promised to apologize for the head tax, including Prime Minister Paul Martin.

But, Chinese activists want all those elected to formally stand up in Parliament immediately after the election and issue a formal apology.

Such an apology would be only the first step, Li said, toward eventual compensation for victims and their families.

Li predicted in a telephone interview from Toronto the issue would influence the vote for as many as 22 of Canada's 308 seats in the national parliament.

"We make up over 1 million of the population in Canada. That's a significant amount of voters," she said.

Li said the activists were not telling voters which candidates Chinese-Canadians should choose, but were informing them about each candidate's track record.

"We make sure they are educated and aware [of] what is going on in the political arena," Li said.

As a result, Chinese-Canadians have turned out to candidate meetings in force to push the issue of redress.

In Richmond, a Conservative candidate who said he supported head tax redress, but refused to sign a petition, was loudly booed by elderly Chinese-Canadians.

Activists also received high-profile support. In Toronto last Thursday, the council released an open letter supporting its goals, signed by prominent Canadians, including Toronto Mayor David Miller.

Chinatowns dotting Canadian cities sprung up during the initial wave of immigration, sparked in part by workers, many of whom helped build the railways in the late 1800s.

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