Racialized Social Hierarchy and the Chinese Immigration Act

In 1885, after the completion of the Canadian Pacific railway, the Canadian government implemented the Chinese Immigration Act which excluded Chinese immigrants from being acknowledged as a person. On July 20th of the same year, there was a head tax of $50 imposed on Chinese immigrants coming to Canada. This placed a financial burden on men, women and children attempting to enter the country and therefore created a limit as to who could enter. Not only did immigrants have to pay to enter the country, there were further restrictions placed on them once they arrived. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to take part in any organizations of courts and could be fined. Even if immigrants paid the head tax, they had to carry proof of purchase around and could still be challenged by authorities. Those who were born into Canada still had to pay a fee to register with authorities due to their race.

The immigration act was amended twice, increasing the head tax from $50 to $100 in 1900 and even higher to $500 in 1903. Those trying to come over to Canada had to spend a substantial amount of their money just to be able to stay in the country, leaving them with almost nothing to survive with. Restrictions were placed on leaving the country as well. Two years was the maximum time allowed to return to Canada, any time after this, immigrants were forced to pay the $500 head tax once again. This prohibited any Chinese immigrant from going back home to see family that could not afford to pay the tax, as well as any travel to other countries. This eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923 which created a complete prohibition on Chinese immigrants coming to Canada. The two year time limit to return to Canada was still in place, except that instead of an additional fine if the time limit was surpassed, immigrants were no longer allowed to reenter the country. Some immigrants though, escaped purely racist immigration laws by entering the country “through what became known as the ‘paper sons’ system” (Goldring, 2013). This system allowed immigrants to use someone else’s papers in order to enter the country. Over 11,000 people made their way into the country by using this system, and it was not until the Chinese Adjustment Statement Program that these immigrants were acknowledged. The government collected millions of dollars from Chinese immigrants in the time that such acts were implemented. Years later on June 22, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology to those who had been affected by the head tax. Those who may have paid the tax, or were a spouse of a tax payer who was forced to pay the tax were compensated with a redress. This still left out other family members that may have been affected.

Critical race theory focuses not just on the individual, but the role the law itself has in constructing and reproducing racism. Because this theory focuses on historical forms of racism, and the experiences of groups affected in their analysis, critical race theory would explain the actions taken place during the exclusions of Chinese immigrants by stating that this group was constructed as ‘others’. This furthers the thinking of white superiority and allows those who come from a different race to feel less deserving than those of white skin color. In this specific case study, the approaches to race described by Comack of biological and cultural both explain the ways in which Chinese immigrants were discriminated against. The head tax, which was to be paid by those who came from China, created a type of social sorting that helped maintain the racial hierarchy, especially when it came to jobs that were deemed undesirable by the Canadian population. Comack states that cultural approaches view “race as a product of the cultural characteristics of different groups” (2006). In this way, it allows a dominant culture to make decisions and changes that effect the inferior group substantially. Race is seen as socially constructed when looked at through this approach, and is constructed at this time to give the Canadian government more power over the people entering the country by giving Chinese immigrants the idea that they are less deserving of the title of citizen, and even the ability to call oneself a person. The Canadian government used things such as the law to normalize racial hierarchy. This further excluded Chinese immigrants from settling into a life in Canada as workplaces were hesitant to hire and thus made it difficult for those with head tax receipts to maintain a living while in Canada. Even those who were Canadian born faced discrimination due to legislation that was directed toward excluding Chinese citizens.

Many people who were affected by the legislation and head tax are no longer around to be apologized to. Although the government has implemented a redress and have formally apologized, it is difficult for families to feel they have received adequate recognition when they are not eligible to receive compensation. This is because they are not a spouse of a person who paid the head tax, but as it was mentioned, many of these people are no longer around to be able to collect. Younger generations of members of the families affected have created various organizations and websites trying to educate Canadians on what is really going on. Such organizations set out to seek fairness for those who are still suffering financially, to promote racial fairness and equality across Canada and to teach Canadians what the government is capable of doing and what we can do to stop it from happening again.


Comack, E. (2006). Theoretical approaches in the sociology of law: Theoretical excursions. In. E Comack (Ed.) Locating law: race/class/gender/sexuality connections (2nd ed., p. 54-55) Halifax, NS: Fernwood Pub.     

Goldring, L. & Landolt, P. (2013). Producing and Negotiating Non-Citizenship. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press

“Taxing the Chinese.” Road to Justice » Chinese Head Tax. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.


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