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Advocates for Chinese head tax apology say BC premier should not delay

The grandson of an Chinese immigrant forced to pay a head tax says British Columbia's premier shouldn't let her political woes interfere with delivering a meaningful apology for the policy.

Victor Wong with the Chinese Canadian National Council is wondering about Christy Clark's suggestion that the timing around an announcement for redress may be affected by the ethnic vote scandal that has rocked her government.

Clark made it clear on CTV's Question Period on Sunday she may need to postpone making any apology so there won't be any accusations that she is playing politics with the issue.

"I think it's the right thing to do to apologize for the Chinese head tax, I am very committed to that," she said.

"I think, though, the apology needs to be seen outside of politics. It needs to be an absolutely genuine apology and if the discussion about all the rest of this is going to taint that, I say we wait."

Clark added that there are two MLAs in the Liberal caucus who are the children of those who paid the head tax, and that they are very passionate about seeing an apology through.

"They've been working at this for years."

A Liberal government document surfaced in late February suggesting the party would attempt to gain "quick wins" at the ballot box in May by issuing formal apologies to ethnic communities for historic wrongs.

But Wong said members of his community see themselves as apart from the political firestorm because the government has already offered an apology several times.

"The main message to Christy Clark is to say, 'premier, please meet with the head tax families ... and please appoint a representative to negotiation a genuine apology," he said in an interview.

"If you say 'genuine apology,' then we will take you at your word. If you mean genuine apology, then it has to be an apology that we're willing to accept."

He said apologies will be considered real if the government also offers the 3,000 Chinese-Canadian families that were affected a meaningful financial settlement.

"If we wanted just an apology, we would have got it back in 2011 or 2012 or early 2013," he said. "It's been offered to us. We've rejected it."

Wong pointed to the federal government apology in 2006 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a model for the B.C. government to follow. The Conservative government doled out payments of $20,000 to living Chinese head tax payers and to living spouses of deceased payers.

"I think the memo controversy has just been a distraction," he said. "From our angle, it has not affected us. Even if it was a real plan, it would not affect us."

The ethnic vote scandal has forced Clark's former deputy chief of staff and her multiculturalism minister to resign, as well as prompted an internal review.

The British Columbia government was the thoroughfare when immigrants arrived in Canada and received massive transfer payments back from Ottawa. Canada charged the head tax starting in the late 1800s to discourage immigration.

The council said that when the federal government collected a total of $23 million in head tax levies, it transferred about $8.5 million back to B.C., which would be worth upwards of $1 billion today.

His group began seeking compensation 30 years ago. Wong said getting settlements from B.C. would finally close a chapter in Canadian history.

Provincial cabinet minister Ida Chong, one of the children of the head tax payers, was not available for comment on Sunday. MLA Richard Lee also did not respond to requests for comment.

Tamsyn Burgmann reports for the Canadian Press.

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