Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, I rise today to honour the life of the late Chow Quen Lee, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 105. Chow Quen Lee was an outspoken activist who fought for justice over Canada’s Chinese Head Tax, a tax which sorely affected her life and the lives of many other Chinese immigrants who came to Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Her story begins with her future husband, Guang Foo Lee, and his decision to immigrate to Canada in 1913. At that time, the Chinese Head Tax was at its highest point, an outlandish $500, which back then was the equivalent of two years’ wages. Guang returned to China in 1930 to marry Chow Quen, after which he immediately returned to Canada. Unfortunately, to the newlyweds’ dismay, the Exclusion Act barred her and all Chinese immigrants from immigrating to Canada until 1947.
As a result, the couple was kept separated for 14 years. Chow Quen eventually arrived in Canada in 1950, with her three children, each of whom were conceived in her husband’s three restricted visits to China between 1930 and 1950.
Chow Quen Lee never forget the injustices her family had to enduring in order to immigrate to Canada. Her son, Yew Lee, said:
I always remember being a kid that was five or six years old, and she’d open this big rusty old steamer trunk in the corner of the room in our two-bedroom apartment above a small restaurant, and she’d take out this piece of paper, dust it off and say, “This is something that remains unfinished business. This piece of paper is very important and we’re going to deal with it someday.”
That piece of paper was the certificate for the $500 Chinese Head Tax her husband paid to immigrate to Canada in 1913.
After spending the majority of her life travelling the country and giving speeches about Canada’s discriminatory history towards Chinese immigrants, at the ripe age of 80 years old, she volunteered to become the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the federal government seeking redress for the Head Tax. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, and its appeals denied. But it set in motion a path towards an official apology and reparations, which occurred in 2006, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Chow Quen was happy to finally see the government show its respect to the Chinese community. But like many others, she decried the symbolic settlement as too little, too late, especially since it paled in comparison to the $23 million the Canadian government collected from some 81,000 people under the Head Tax.
Chow Quen Lee was a moving mother, wife and social justice advocate who fought until her very last breath and — often times in a wheelchair — she fought for those who had suffered at the hands of the immigration process. Chow Quen Lee is an inspiration to us all. May she finally rest in peace knowing that her fight is over. My sincerest condolences to her family.