From the mid-to-late nineteenth century, more than 15,000 labourers from China arrived in Canada to conduct construction work on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Many faced discrimination, such as being paid only paid a third less than their co-workers while given the most dangerous assignments in harsh conditions. As part of the anti-immigration sentiment in British Columbia at the time, the federal parliament passed in 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act, which stipulated that all Chinese entering Canada must first pay a $50-dollar fee, later referred to as a head tax. This was amended in 1887, 1892, and 1901, with the fee increasing to its maximum of $500 in 1903.
My great-grandfather, Choo Hang Wai, great-grandfather, Chow Bing Fai, and many ancestors, were among the more than 97,000 migrants who had to pay a headtax for the entry into Canada. Between 1885 and 1923, the Government of Canada collects about 33 million dollars ($544 million in 2022 dollars), from about 97,000 Chinese headtax payers. The headtax system also had the effect of constraining Chinese immigration; it discouraged Chinese women and children from joining their men, so the Chinese community in Canada became a "bachelor society".
For the past 15 years, this journey to rediscover this lost part of history has been both rewarding and frustrating. My colleague at SFU Library, Sarah Zhang, and I are working on a project that ‘hacks” the historical dataset of the Chinese headtax registers (the records of migrants as they stepped off the ship and onto Canadian soil). Both a professional to personal endeavour, there have been twists and turns to how much the archives that my country is holding onto and how much it wants to release.
During the pandemic, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) quietly rehauled their website earlier this Fall, to reflect new guidelines for Government of Canada websites. I was perturbed that this happened and worried that everything had been wiped clean. Thank you to my friend and colleague June Chow pointing me in the right direction.
I've been disturbed by this level of difficulty for a simple search. I had a challenging time, but I do this for a living. How can we expect the public to use this tool for finding anything? I really hope that this is a temporary measure by the LAC!