Henry Yu is an associate professor, Department of History, University of British Columbia.
I was recently asked whether the 15-per-cent property tax imposed by the B.C. government on "foreign buyers" is a new "head tax." My questioner was referring to the Chinese head tax in effect between 1885 and 1923, which only Chinese immigrants were forced to pay, and for which the federal government in 2006 apologized as racist legislation.
There are similarities between the two, but also differences. First, Chinese nationals, and in particular those from Mainland China, were the obvious target of the new B.C. tax. Although there was no use of the word "Chinese" in the legislation, introduction of the 15-per-cent tax followed several years of news stories decrying the alleged effect of buyers from Mainland China on affordability in the Vancouver housing market.
The use of the term "foreign" was telling. B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jongstated that "while investment from outside Canada is only one factor driving price increases," the tax would "manage foreign demand." For those who are railing against Chinese buyers from overseas, the word "foreign" pointed the finger without naming them. There had been no public outcry about wealthy British migrants or American actors buying vacation homes. Surely the law was not in response to them?
There is no doubt that overt anti-Chinese legislation is no longer permissible in Canada. People of Chinese descent are now able to become Canadian citizens, enjoying rights such as voting and being licensed as doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants – things they were denied before 1947. They were unwanted as immigrants, legally excluded from 1923 until 1947 and not until 1967 were racial preferences removed from immigration law and barriers against non-whites removed.
For the first century of Canada's history, those with Chinese ancestry – even if they were born in Canada – were considered permanently "foreign" and legally treated differently. Are there any echoes of the conflation between "Chinese" and "foreign" today?
Less than 30 years ago, after Expo 86, media stories decried Vancouver becoming "Hongcouver" because Chinese migrants from Hong Kong were supposedly driving up housing prices. Chinese were considered a problem and a threat, but the anti-Chinese fervour did not last. We might ask why. Was it because Hong Kong Chinese became Canadian citizens and proved they belonged through their hard work and giving back to Canadian society through their philanthropy? Was it because studies found that the effect of Hong Kong Chinese buyers was only a minor factor in rising housing prices? Considering the long history of anti-Chinese racism in British Columbia, what is surprising from a historical point of view is not that there was that Hongcouver moment, but that it abated so quickly.
The B.C. government apologized in 2014 for its role in historical anti-Chinese legislation. The province had split the $23-million (equivalent today to more than $1.5-billion) of proceeds from the Chinese head tax with the federal government. That money helped to pay for infrastructure – bridges, roads and public buildings – in a period before the creation of income tax. One of the proposed uses for revenue from the new 15-per-cent foreign-buyers tax is the building of affordable housing. There has been little complaint about funding an urgent need such as publicly subsidized affordable housing this way. Should there be?
The word "foreign" is an interesting word. It means different things to different people. In your mind's eye, whom do you see when you think of the term? What colour is their hair? What language are they speaking? Years ago, there was an advertising campaign from one of our major national breweries featuring a series of people stating "I am Canadian." The images, one after another, featured no visible minorities. Have we left behind the conflation of "foreign" with being non-white?