Wisdom and need for apology and reparations (Chinese head tax)

Today, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an apology to Canadians of Chinese descent in general, and, specifically, to those few survivors who were directly affected by the “Head Tax” policy of a hundred years ago. (In brief, Chinese, but not other potential immigrants were obliged to pay a relatively huge sum - equivalent to about two years wages - in order to gain entry to Canada. The link in the next paragraph provides much greater detail). He also announced that the 800 or so survivors (or their widows) would receive compensation in the amount of $20,000.00 CDN (~$18,000 US).

Here is a link to an article describing his speech, its contents, and the historical background.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as Harper said, “it is the decent thing to do”. On the other hand, it diverts funds from other projects, opens the door for other ostensibly aggrieved populations to have expectations of receiving similar treatment, and, in my opinion most significantly, suggests that the present government of Canada and its citizens somehow bear responsibility for what happened a century ago. Indeed, how else can we apologize with sincerity unless we are culpable, the need for retroactivity nothwithstanding.

Obviously, 10 million bucks is nothing in the grand scheme of things. And I’m not too concerned about Ukranian-Canadians or German-Canadians demanding their own apologies (and reparations). What bothers me is the implication that I am somehow responsible for the actions of a government that existed the better part of a century before I was born.

I’d welcome your comments and opinions.


The title should have read, "Wisdom of, and need for, apology and reparations (Chinese head tax).

IANAC, but I figure it’s a reasonably fair solution as long as reimbursements are only being made to the actual people who paid the tax.

At first I thought I agreed, but then I thought: if we are agreeing that reparations are due (a step I admit is not a foregone conclusion), then those who are the direct descendants of those who paid the tax have also suffered, since they failed to inherit the two year’s salary (or whatever dividends its investment paid) when their parents/grandparents/whatever died. How would you address that issue (general question)?

That’s an issue I’m interested in (how far back in time should you go regarding reparations). However, in this case, it’s quite clear cut : people who have been personnally wronged receive reparations. I really can’t see a reason why they should be denied it.

Well, you might say that they shouldrecieve reparations, but not necessarily from the current government of Canada. After all, this was a long time ago, and there is, I think, a question as to whether the current government is held morally responsible for the decisions of that period’s government, given that there’s probably not a single representative who’s lasted that long.

However, I agree that the case for repartations seems fairly clear cut; but why confine it to those who actually had to pay the tax? If their widows can recieve the payment, why can’t their children, yea unto the seventh generation etc etc.?

This is very egocentric and illogical of you. Once you pay taxes, it is NO LONGER YOUR MONEY. For the most part, your taxes are paying for things you’ve already used: fire/police protection, public education, government agencies. Your outlook is akin to people who think the world’s history before they were born is irrelevant, or means less because they didn’t contribute to it. You are a cog in a larger machine that benefited from the money stolen from those immigrants. Nobody is saying/implying you are responsible because nobody blames the cog. Although the stakes in this case are pretty small, modern society is still benefiting from past wrongs. Why is it wrong to try to correct them?

Whose money is it?

Because history is little more than a series of injustices perpetrated by by individuals or groups against other individuals or groups, and there’s no end to them, and no way to correct them.

The government’s money. Very simple concept.

No one said we must correct every wrong, but we should if it is practical and reasonable. It’s easy to write off all the people who’ve been fucked over when you aren’t part of that group.

We’re all part of some group that’s been fucked over, though. Who gets to decide what’s practical and reasonable to correct?

Me, I guess. Oh, c’mon - I’m a reasonable sort ;).

You can go back and forth about how many generations this should extend ( to perhaps help ameliorate insidious and lasting societal ills ), but I have a hard time arguing against this sort of direct financial reparation for actual survivors of the abuse. Japanese and actually interned during WW II? Married to someone who was interned while you were married? You deserve some compensation. Children of those interned, born during the internment? Yes. Born after? Arguable.

So in this case I would think it’s a no brainer. The hell with the slippery slope - that can be debated later. But at least pay off the folks that are still alive while you can. Spend a couple of years kicking this around government halls and a couple of hundred people who should get something might die of old age.

  • Tamerlane

My disagreement wasn’t so much with this particular case, as with the general attitude of “Although the stakes in this case are pretty small, modern society is still benefiting from past wrongs. Why is it wrong to try to correct them?” I don’t see any particular problem with modern society benefiting from past wrongs.

I dunno. I think it is somewhat reasonable to have some sort of limitations period on claims of past harm.

After all, the same elements that go into having civil limitations periods on other sorts of claims ought to apply to these types of claims as well - I can’t think of why they should be treated in a wholly different way.

In Canada, the Proceedings Against the Crown Act establishes a default six-year limitations period:

In Ontario, the standard limitations is now two years. All of this subject to discoverability of course.

Now, I think that there are legitimate reasons for having limitations - one of which is to have some sort of closure, to avoid litigation of wrongs being dredged up in later years, when memories of facts, persons responsible, issues, social norms etc. have all changed.

My question is this: is there a compelling reason to exempt some types of wrong from the operation of limitations periods? Or should limitations periods be done away with altogether?

I’m leaning towards “no” on both, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Slippery slope arguments are usually wrong. An issue is an issue and should be considered on its own merits - there’s no reason to make it equivalent to a different issue unless there’s some real reason to do so. Saying that making machine guns or heroin illegal will lead to making forks or sugar illegal is just foolish. It’s an argument offered by people who otherwise can’t convince people that machine guns or heroin should be legal.

Thanks, Malthus. You expressed it far, far better than I ever could.

Hey, no problem. :slight_smile:

I just see that this sort of issue is usually played out in the realm of emotions, the two competing ones of course being “why should society not pay for past thievery/other wrongs?” on the one hand, and “why should I, through my taxes, pay for stuff that happened before I was born?” on the other; and pretty soon it is off to arguing about Nazis owning great works of art versus the Acadians asking for Nova Scotia back. :wink:

It is better I think to get down to brass tacks. Is there any reason to treat this type of wrong differently than other wrongs committed by the government?

Yes, if the aggrieved party did not have any real opportunity to present a case within the limitation period. Surely you won’t suggest that anyone who tried to obtain a refund of this tax when it was in force, or within six years after its repeal, would have gotten any sort of serious hearing?

So why address anything that has happened already? Your rationalization is what lazy people tell themselves when the shit that needs to be addressed is actually happening. I’m not saying you can address every grievance somebody has, but it’s right to so when possible.