by Al Campbell
VANCOUVER, Aug. 9 (Xinhua) -- The Canadian government announced Monday 900,000 U.S. dollars for the creation of a new website documenting the experiences of Chinese settlers, past and present.
The bilingual portal, "Chinese Canadian stories: Uncommon stories from a common past history," will be created by the University of British Columbia with funding from the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP). It will focus on the collection, documentation and preservation of the legacies of Chinese Canadians and their role in building Canada.
The portal will launch in March 2012, with an online virtual experience featuring portable interactive kiosks and a searchable database of digital materials created by the CHRP-funded partner organizations.
"This digital archive will help all Canadians understand and appreciate Chinese culture, as well as the importance of educating future generations about the hardships experienced by the early Chinese Canadians," said Alice Wong, the federal Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism who made the grant announcement.
Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong, China, and the representative for Richmond, British Colombia, encouraged CHRP grant holders to submit their completed projects to the university to make the digital archive possible.
"The CHRP program is tangible proof of the government's determination not only to acknowledge the hardships faced by the Chinese community, as well as other communities, but also to use education to fight racism and embrace diversity," she said.
Over the past decade, Canada has slowly recognized, and subsequently apologized and paid for, its discriminatory practices against its early Chinese citizens.
The first Chinese came in the late 1850s from the goldfields of California to the Fraser River Valley, now the province of British Columbia.
Chinese laborers, about 17,000 in all, were later recruited to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, a monumental and often dangerous feat that united the newly founded Dominion of Canada in 1867.
Canada, however, showed its thanks by implementing a Chinese-only head tax between 1885 and 1923 that ranged from 50 dollars to 500 dollars.
The tax was finally abolished, only to be followed by the effective stopping of Chinese emigration to Canada until 1947. Many Chinese, mostly men, were kept separated from their families in China for decades.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology in 2006 for the discrimination and exclusion practices and a symbolic 20,000 dollars were paid to 785 elderly head tax survivors or their widows. Today, with most of those who paid the tax deceased, the subject is still a contentious issue in the Chinese-Canadian community.
Wong said the current Conservative government was following through on its commitment to build a strong and diverse Canada by raising awareness of the country's restrictive policies in the past.
In May 2008, the government announced it was making 5 million dollars available to the Chinese-Canadian community for education and commemorative projects to document their immigration experiences.
Henry Yu, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia's Department of History, is leading the portal project.
Yu's family has lived in Canada for about 150 years and his late grandfather was among those who paid the head tax.
Yu said the portal would help the public "rethink" Canadian history and the fact that there was another group of founding people in 1867 other than First Nations, the British and the French.
"The Chinese were already here. In fact, even building the railroad that allowed the country to move from one set of colonies into a confederation, the Chinese must have already been here building," he said.
Yu said, while the history was common, the emphasis of "uncommon histories from a common past" was on the uncommonness of history.
"In excluding the Chinese back in 1923, and imposing a head tax between 1885 and 1923, Canadian history excluded an important part of its past, ignored it, erased it," he said. "In order to build a common future we need to recognize that there are uncommon histories from the past, parts that were marginalized, ignored, erased as if the Chinese weren't here."
Part of the CHRP funding will be used to employ a Chinese language archivist, who will read old documents, letters and newspapers, often written in classical Chinese, and translate them into English.
"One of the things we're going to really work out," said Yu, "is how do you take these very different perspectives. Often the English-language perspective was anti-Chinese, trying to keep them out or denigrate or minimize their impact in Canada, whereas the Chinese in their own words, in their own language, had this very different perspective.
"There you see their hopes and dreams and why they would come for decades and be away from family. What kept them sending money every month home to basically family, kids and wives that they hadn't seen in years? The level of emotional contact and trust and the bonds between family members, it's hard for us to imagine how difficult it was."
Canada has about 1.3 million citizens of Chinese descent now, and many came in the past 30 years. Yu said he hoped new immigrants would use the website and submit their experience about coming to a new country.
"One of the things about learning about that past is that it gives us a new way of understanding our own future here, that we're tied to China, like it or not, and it's future. We are going to be trading. We are going to have population flows back and forth, cultural exchange, ideas. Everything is going to be going back and forth across the Pacific in a way very similar to what it was before the head tax."