'Vote ploy' uproar stalls BC premier's plan to apologise for Chinese head tax

British Columbia premier puts hold on plans to express regret over tax on Chinese immigrants after paper surfaces detailing ethnic vote push

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:54am

Plans by British Columbia's government to apologise for the "head tax" that Canada once imposed on Chinese immigrants appear to have been shelved, amid uproar over a leaked government strategy paper on how to woo the ethnic vote.

Chinese community advocates reacted with indignation to the leaked plan, which advocated apologising for historical wrongs to allow the government to score "quick wins" in multicultural BC.

The heavily criticised 17-page paper last week forced the resignation of one of BC Premier Christy Clark's top advisers, deputy chief of staff Kim Haakstad. Clark's multiculturalism minister, John Yap, also stepped aside last week, pending the outcome of an investigation into the leaked strategy, which was sent from Haakstad's personal e-mail address to key government staff.

The strategy outlined how government resources could be used to boost the appeal of Clark's centre-right Liberal government in ethnic communities.

Sid Chow Tan, president of the Head Tax Families Society of Canada, said on Monday he was "shocked by the detail" of the strategy, and disappointed by "the blurring of lines in using public money for party purposes".

The "multicultural outreach strategic plan", dated January of last year, billed itself as an attempt to re-engage with ethnic voters. It noted: "Anecdotal reports suggest that some ethnic communities, particularly Chinese, feel that they are ignored by government between elections".

Among its suggestions to combat this perception was that the government "identify and correct 'historical wrongs'" in order to score some "quick wins".

Clark's government had recently been working on plans to formally apologise for the 1885-1923 head tax imposed by Canada to deter Chinese immigration. But on Sunday she said she wanted to delay the apology, lest it be dismissed as politicking.

"The apology needs to be seen outside of politics, it needs to be an absolutely genuine apology," Clark told CTV. "And if the discussion about all the rest of this is going to taint that, I say we wait."

However, Tan said an apology still needed to be made to survivors of the head tax and their descendants, so long as it was sincere.

"For me, an apology must be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing … it should be redemptive for the person making the apology and healing for the person receiving it," he said.

"People have been blasting [the BC government], and deservedly so, but an apology still needs to be done, provided they can satisfy those things."

Tan said that the goals of the strategy did not surprise him, "but really, this is something that most parties would do".

"For the politically informed, I don't think this will make that much of a difference to how they vote," Tan said. "Every political party will do whatever they can; the problem is that Christy Clark got caught."

The original author of the strategy paper is not clear, and Clark said she never saw it before the opposition New Democrats tabled it in parliament on February 27. She said it was never implemented.

The paper offered as an example of a "quick win" the apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. More than 300 Indian would-be migrants who set sail from Hong Kong aboard the Komagata Maru were refused entry in Vancouver and were forced to turn back after two months in the harbour. Apologies by the federal and BC governments were made in recent years and a compensation fund established.

Critics and opposition politicians have branded the BC Liberals' strategy paper as cynical and insincere. Among the harshest critics have been ethnic members of Clark's own team.

Liberal MLA Kash Heed said those behind the paper should be fired. "If you're truly reaching out wanting to assist these communities and you're truly apologetic, do it from the heart, not for a check mark on the ballot come election day," he told CBC.

A group of 89 South Asian Liberal Party members on Sunday told Clark to quit because she had "made the ethnic vote a joke".