VICTORIA – Plans by Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal government for an all-party apology in British Columbia’s legislature over the Chinese head tax fell apart last week amid concerns about the government’s ethnic-wins scandal.
Burnaby North Liberal Richard Lee and Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant New Democrat Jenny Kwan said both parties were reviewing a draft apology that was planned for presentation in the legislature last Thursday, but time ran out especially for the NDP who barely had three days to consider the invitation.
“The final draft was in the hands of the Opposition on Monday (March 11),” said Lee, a three-term Liberal MLA who has been lobbying for a Chinese head tax apology for years. “Certainly, the timing was not the best.”
The proposed March 14 date for the official head tax apology collided with the government’s release of its own review by Clark’s deputy minister John Dyble of the controversial ethnic outreach strategy.
Dyble’s review found serious misuse of government resources and staff in connection with the leaked plan. The report concluded the work lines between the B.C. government and the provincial Liberal party were clearly crossed in a government effort to win ethnic votes.
The document suggested that formal apologies in the legislature to ethnic communities for historic wrongs could result in quick wins at the ballot box.
The B.C. legislature adjourned last Thursday and is not scheduled to resume sitting until some time following the May 14 provincial election.
Kwan said the New Democrats have long supported a Chinese head tax apology, but were concerned about what was considered a last-minute invitation by the Liberals to participate in the apology.
“We were never invited to be part of the process,” she said. “We should have been there from the beginning.”
Kwan, without directly mentioning the failed Liberal ethnic outreach strategy, said there were concerns about the amount of consultation and preparation surrounding the apology.
“Not all of my questions have been answered,” she said. “It is important for me to know what the process was. Even on the last day, I needed some clarification on this. The time ran out. In three days, we tried to put it all together.”
Three former Liberal insiders and former multiculturalism minister John Yap either resigned or left government over the Liberal government document.
Dyble said he found two serious instances of misuse of government resources, which included allowing former government communications worker Brian Bonney to spend at least half of his time at his taxpayer-funded job doing B.C. Liberal Party work.
The other misuse involved the payment of $6,800 to a community contractor approved by Yap without a contract.
The Liberal party has since repaid the government $70,000 to make up what was estimated as half of Bonney’s salary. Bonney, who no longer works for the government, left his job before the scandal broke last month.
Clark’s former deputy chief of staff Kim Haakstad and government communications worker Mike Lee resigned their positions without severance as a consequence of the outreach strategy and Dyble’s report.
Lee, a three-term Liberal, said he is seeking re-election and is leaving the apology to whoever forms the next government.
“There’s still some work to be done,” said Lee, who added he was considering releasing the draft apology to the media, but wanted to consult with community members for their input.
Lee said the draft apology made mention of the sensitive issue of compensation, but no dollar amount was included.
“This was to open the door for discussion,” said Lee.
Kwan said the issue of head-tax compensation is widely debated in the Chinese-Canadian community.
“It depends on who you talk to,” she said. “There are others who are saying it is not about money. It’s much more than that. It’s about fully understanding and taking actions that are meaningful. It’s not a simple, compensation or no compensation.”
But Victor Wong, Chinese Canadian National Council spokesman, said some form of financial compensation is a major issue connected to any apology.
Canada started charging a head tax in the late 1800s to discourage Chinese immigration. The B.C. government supported the head tax and accepted federal head-tax payments.
Wong said when the federal government collected a total of $23 million in head tax levies more than 100 years ago, it transferred about $8.5 million back to B.C., which is worth about $1 billion today.
“We’re not seeking a billion dollars, but we’re saying to the government … you’ve got to return a symbolic and meaningful amount back to the families who paid it,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry,’ and ‘Oh, we’re just going to keep the monies that were collected from your families.’”
In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government apologized and made payments of $20,000 each living Chinese-Canadians who paid the head tax or their surviving spouses.