Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act: How Should Government Respond to Past Injustice?

Concept(s) Historical Perspectives, Ethical Dimensions of History

Exemplary example of Ethical Dimensions of History

Prepared for Grade(s) 10, 11, 12

Province NB

By Blake Kennedy, Tom Morton

Time Period(s) 1800-1900, 1900-present

Time allotment 3 x 60 minute classes

Brief Description of the Task

On July 20, 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act received royal assent and became law. Among other restrictions it imposed a Head Tax of $50 on any Chinese immigrants. It was the first of many increasingly severe laws to discriminate against Canada's Chinese population. Eventually, on July 1, 1923, a new Chinese Immigration Act came into effect. It almost completely banned Chinese immigration to Canada and during the next 24 years, only 44 Chinese entered Canada. Chinese Canadians long referred to July 1 as “Humiliation Day."

In these lessons students examine the imposition of the Chinese Head Tax and the Exclusion Act of 1923. After researching the background and considering the historical perspectives of the various groups involved, they write a position paper on the responsibility of the current Canadian government to acknowledge the injustice towards the Chinese in Canada.



Objectives for historical thinking:

Students will be able to

1. use several primary sources and historical context to construct an explanation of historical events;

2. use this evidence to give a plausible explanation of the perspectives of historical actors, while avoiding the unwarrented imposition of contemporary values and beliefs on actors in the past;

3. recognize the diversity of historical perspectives.

4. make a judgement about how we should respond today to past discrimination against Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Canadians, taking into account the historical context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Required Knowledge & Skills

It would help deepen understanding if students had some prior knowledge of immigration and the development of Canada at this time in the past.


Detailed Instructions

1. As an initial stimulus to engage students and assess their prior knowledge, show ATT 1 Head Tax Certificate and ask what they can infer about the document’s POSSIBLE MEANING and what background knowledge they may have about this certificate.

2. Introduce the ethical dimension of history with questions such as the following:

Have you ever done anything bad to someone? Did you think that maybe you owed them a debt of some kind?
Could a debt ever pass down from one generation to another, from your ancestors?
There have been many injustices in the past. Could a group or a government owe a debt to someone for a past injustice?

Explain that they will be looking at one example of discrimination in the past - a series of restrictions on Chinese-Canadians and immigrants from China - and how Canadians and our government should remember this past injustice.

3. Have students research relevant background information. ATT 2 Resources for Internet Research - Head Tax gives relevant web sites.

4. Explain the concept of historical perspective and the process of taking the perspective of people in the past without imposing our present-day beliefs and ideas. The Historical Thinking web site gives a brief description of the concept and explains some of the challenges.

5. Distribute to students ATT 3 Perspectives of Chinese Immigrants and Whites and ATT 4 Worksheet on Historical Perspectives on the Head Tax and ask them to complete the worksheet.

6. Return again to the theme raised in step 2 above and in question 7 on the ATT 4 worksheet focussing on how the government should respond. Explain the redress campaign in the years prior to 2006 that was lobbying the government to acknowledge the past injustice committed against Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Canadians. Discuss with them some of the options in question 7 of ATT 4 and any other variations that they might suggest.

7. Explain that the government eventually did announce a response. Offer to tell students what the government decided after the class first decides on their own opinions.

Establish criteria for what would be an appropriate response from the government. The criteria might include the following.

The federal government's response should

  • be fair to historic victims and their offspring,
  • not impose undo hardship on present-day citizens who may be innocent of wrongdoing or set an unrealistic precedent for other complaints,
  • serve a useful social purpose

Based on the criteria, have students write a position paper in which they support or oppose the responsibility of the present Canadian governments to apologize and respond in some manner to the wrongs committed by the governments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If they support an apology and a response from the government, students should explain what that response should be. You should distribute the Rubric for Response to Past Injustice to help guide students in their construction of the position paper.

8. Once students have completed their position papers, reveal to them that in a speech to the House of Commons in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did apologize for the Head Tax. His government also offered symbolic payments to living head tax payers and living spouses of deceased payers and established funds for community projects to educate Canadians about the impact of past wartime measures and immigration restrictions. The text of the apology and answers to frequently asked questions about it can be found at Citizen and Immigration Canada, Chinese Head Tax Redress (accessed May 10, 2012).



1. Demonstrate an understanding of our cultural heritage, cultural identity, and contribution of multiculturalism to Canadian society. (Citizenship)
2. Reflect critically on ethical issues. (Personal Development)
3. Use listening, viewing, speaking, reading, and writing modes of language. (Communication)
4. Ask questions, observe relationships, make inferences, and draw conclusions. (Problem Solving)
5. Use a variety of technologies. (Technological Competence)



What is a Benchmark?

<p>John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising &amp; Marketing History,<br />Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections</p>

A surveyor cut a "benchmark" into a stone or a wall when measuring the altitude and/or level of a tract of land. A bracket called a "bench" was secured in the cut to mount the surveying equipment, and all subsequent measurements were made in reference to the position and height of that mark.

The term "benchmark" was first used around 1842 to refer to a standard of quality by which achievement may be measured.

The foundation documents available through the Benchmarks site attempt to help teachers establish standards for assessing student learning of the modes of thought that constitute historical thinking.

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History,
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections