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Kelowna public forum to address apology to B.C.'s Chinese community

Former Kelowna city councillor Ben Lee. - contributed
Former Kelowna city councillor Ben Lee.
— image credit: contributed

As the province gets set to bring one of its forums aimed at gathering public input for a formal apology to B.C’s Chinese community for historical wrongs to Kelowna next week, a well-known member of the local Chinese-Canadian community says he hopes it will go farther than the apology offered by the federal government eight years ago.

Ben Lee, a long-time Kelowna city councillor and the first male teacher of Chinese decent in the province when he came here to teach in the 1950s, said the success of the provincial apology will be based on what type of recognition it pays to past wrongs.

“The federal government did this a few years ago but it only recognized part of the situation,” said Lee, now 84.

In Ottawa’s case, the apology was for the Head Tax it charged Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923. That tax started out at $50 per person in 1885, was raised to $100 per person in 1900 and to $500 per person in 1903, all huge amounts for lowly paid labours trying to bring their families to Canada.

The Head Tax was ended in 1923 when the federal government effectively banned most Chinese immigrants from entering Canada. That ban lasted until 1947 when Chinese Canadians received full citizenship rights.

Despite the fact thousands of Chinese labours first came to Canada in the mid-19th century to help build the Canadian Pacific Railroad that linked this country, once the railroad was complete the government set in place measures to stop the flow of more immigrants from China.

“For over six decades, these malicious measures, aimed solely at the Chinese, were implemented with deliberation by the Canadian state,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2006 federal apology.  “This was a grave injustice, and one we are morally obligated to acknowledge.”

Lee said his father paid the $500 Head Tax to bring his mother over from China.

In B.C., the provincial government recently started a process of consultation to discuss the wording, delivery and what it calls the “legacy efforts” for a formal apology to the Chinese community.

In B.C., more than 100 pieces of discriminatory legislation and regulations against the Chinese community in the 1800s and 1900s were introduced.

They included restricting employment, voting and holding public office, imposing taxes and fees based on place of origin or ethnicity, restrictive and punitive licensing and regulatory requirements and restrictions on the ownership of property.

“While the government will engage with B.C.’s Chinese community associations and individuals who were directly and indirectly impacted by prejudicial legislation, I want to make it clear everyone is welcome to attend these sessions,” said Teresa Wat, Minister of International Trade and Minister Responsible for the Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism.

“All British Columbians need to be a part of this important process if it is to have the currency it needs to be truly meaningful.”

“We can’t undo the past but we can move forward and leave a legacy for future generations by educating them about the past.”

Lee, who found Kelowna to be more multicultural than larger centres in B.C. when he came here in the 1950s, said if the school board of the day had concerns about hiring an “Oriental” teacher, they did not affect the final decision.

“I remember one man saying ‘What does it matter as long as he can teach.’”

He said when he came here, in addition to Chinese people, there were already other ethnic groups such as Japanese, East Indians and Eastern Europeans.

Back then, Kelowna had a small Chinatown in the block bordered by Abbott Street, Leon Avenue, Water Street and what is now Harvey Avenue.

In 1909, it was estimated that 15 per cent of Kelowna’s population (then 1,800) was of Chinese descent. The majority lived in and around the community’s Chinatown.

The provincial forum in Kelowna, one of seven in locations across B.C. over the next few weeks, will take place Jan. 14, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Best Western Plus Kelowna Hotel and Suites on Harvey Avenue.

Other forums will take place in Vancouver, Burnaby, Prince George and Richmond. Forums have already taken place in Victoria and Kamloops.

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