provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Is the B.C. Property Levy on 'Foreign Buyers' a New Head Tax?

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?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Great "China Clipper" Normie Kwong

Still mourning the loss of one of our greatest Canadians, the "China Clipper" Normie Kwong. I had the honour of meeting and knowing The Honourable Norman Kwong because he and his wife Mary Kwong are the parents of one of my best friends, but I had known his story long before I first met him because he was an inspiration to so many kids (and adults) in Canada.

One of the great memories of my life will always be sitting down with Normie and Mary for an afternoon interviewing them with my student Jennifer Yip, who then edited highlights from the interview into an online short called "Clipping Barriers" (embedded above).  We had so much visual material from his career as a CFL star, as businessman and part owner of the Calgary Flames, as GM of the Calgary Stampeders, and as Lieutenant Governor of Alberta because his wife Mary and Normie's sister had carefully collected and saved newspaper clippings throughout his long and important career. We were able to digitally scan the materials and my student Woan-Jen Wang was able to put them in archival order before helping arrange their donation to the Alberta provincial archives, where those interested in his life and impact on Canadian society can use them for research.

As those who knew him well and spoke at his state funeral on September 13 attested, he was a warm and funny man who could put someone at ease as much through teasing and joking as through his genuinely kind heart. Deepest condolences to the Kwong family, and to all Canadians, for the loss of this truly historic figure.