Relieving human misery

George Leslie Mackay
George Leslie Mackay

Tuesday June 19, 1894. The 20th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, meeting in St. John, New Brunswick:

There was taken up and read an overture signed by a large number of members of the Assembly, asking the Assembly to take into serious consideration the unjust and odious discrimination against the Government and people of China, and in conjunction with other churches to endeavor to bring such influence to bear upon the government of Canada, as may result in the removal of the aforesaid unjust restriction. The Moderator was heard in support of the overture, the ex-moderator taking the chair to enable him to speak.

The moderator who broke with tradition was George Leslie Mackay. The overture was his work. His unusual act of leaving the moderator’s chair to join the debate typifies this passionate man who never let conventionality stand in the way of doing good. The speech he made is reported in the Toronto Globe (June 20, 1894):

Dr. Cochrane read the overtures re: Chinese emigration. These overtures set forth that Canada ought to welcome people from all countries to develop her resources; that it is contrary to righteousness, to international comity, and to British practices and treaties to so discriminate. Moderator Mackay spoke most eloquently, upholding the cause of the Chinese, and condemning the course adopted in placing restrictions upon them. “It was said here that the Chinese work cheaply, they retained their own food habits and customs, they returned home after they made money in this country, and they were grossly immoral.” He would like to hear of any charge raised against the Chinese here, including the immorality, which charge was not made by the Chinese in their own country against the European residents there, and upon good grounds. He said he held that in Canada and the United States it is high time that the people remove the scales of prejudice and national pride from their eyes. He would feel proud to go back to Formosa, knowing that the church he loved in the country he loved had placed itself on record as against unjust restrictions against the Chinese.

There were no opposing voices heard in the Assembly, though The Presbyterian Record (July 1894) reported that “Some think the question to be purely one of expediency for the regulating of immigration, a matter concerning which the church has no call to approach the government, but nothing was said against the resolution and it was adopted.” This resolution was the first time that the Presbyterians, or any other church in Canada, had spoken to political issues other than traditional moral issues such as temperance. Mackay challenged the widespread assumption of Canadian society about the danger posed to Canada by the “yellow peril.” Through Mackay’s urging, the Presbyterian Church took a public anti-racist position and voted to send a delegation to lobby the government on immigration policy. It was one of Mackay’s greatest achievements, one which deserves greater notice in Canada’s history, and in the memory of the church.

In his lifetime, Mackay was famed for the strong principles of justice and equality by which he treated others. No better example can be found than his controversial marriage to a “Chinese lady,”, in 1877. Responding to his Canadian critics he wrote: “As I from my heart believe that Chinese and Canadians are exactly the same in the presence of our Lord I act accordingly.”

Mackay’s public opposition to the head tax began when it was still only a British Columbia law. At the large public meeting held October 13, 1881, in Woodstock, Ontario, before his return to Taiwan, Mackay said there was one more subject to which he wished to refer before leaving Canada. He was no politician, but the morality and justice of his native land were dear to him. He referred to the immigration of the Chinese to British Columbia and the attempts that were being made there and at Ottawa to exclude them by unequal and unjust laws. With impressive and thrilling eloquence he denounced the course of their enemies, and appealed — in a way that electrified the whole audience — to Canadians, to crush the monster Tyranny that was now daring to show its head; and speak out in behalf of liberty and fair play to all. Alluding to the grand resources and glorious future of Canada, he would never believe that she would harbour such tyranny or strangle the liberty she now enjoyed. He appealed to his fellow countrymen, who could go freely to China, to stand up for liberty and morality and try to elevate and Christianize all. (The Sentinel Review, Woodstock, October 14, 1881)

I have not yet found any statements by Canadian public figures, or editorials in the papers of his day, that expressed opinions like Mackay’s. He appears to have been prophetically alone in his principles and passionate opposition to the head tax. Four years later, in July 1885, to please the strongly anti-Chinese labour vote in British Columbia, the Macdonald government passed the Chinese Immigration Act. It imposed the first head tax, $50 or about a month’s wage for a worker. This was done as a matter of political convenience to keep the peace in B.C. And it was passed with support from all parties in the Parliament. This, despite the favourable evaluation on Chinese immigration presented by the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration:

Sir John’s Commission Presents its Report
John Chinaman Quite as Moral as his Neighbours
His Continued Immigration a Most Desirable Thing
(Toronto Globe, February 25, 1885)

Minnie Mackay
Minnie Mackay

In 1893, Mackay returned to Canada with Minnie (her Taiwanese name chinese_1 means “intelligent,” “clever.” Minnie is the affectionate form of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.) With them were his children and his favourite student, and future son-in-law, Koa Kau

(chinese_2). Their experience getting off the boat in Victoria renewed Mackay’s passionate opposition to the injustice of the 1885 Head Tax. In a full-page report on Mackay’s return to Canada, titled A Noted Missionary, the Toronto Globe (December 9, 1893) reported:

The pleasure of his present visit to Canada was marred somewhat by the poll tax of $50 collected upon Dr. Mackay’s Chinese student by the collector of customs at Vancouver. The money has since been refunded, but not before Dr. Mackay had recorded his uncompromising opposition to all restrictive legislation against the Chinese. He holds it to be anti-progressive, and anti-commercial, and anti-Christian. His recent address upon the question in the town hall here was a remarkable, urgent and convincing effort.

Remembering George Leslie Mackay and his opposition to the head tax offers us a new understanding of the important missionary heritage in Canada’s past; a history which has been lost from our collective memory.
At a large missionary meeting in Montreal in 1881, Mackay did not fear to criticize his own church. “Many of the churches were dead. Even in this great, wealthy and highly favoured city of Montreal there were dead churches. Too much money by far had been expended upon church edifices, and too many congregations were as a consequence carrying a load of debt, which they found to be an intolerable burden. The system is wrong, it is wicked, and its effect upon the mission of the church is disastrous.”

Mackay had a vigorous and progressive vision of Christian mission, which he actively lived out, often despite the more conventional views of the Presbyterian Board of Missions. A letter from Formosa, May 8, 1876, is one of many in which Mackay defends his practice of breaking the missionary mould:

Perhaps some dear aged Christian in Canada will say, “Extracting teeth is not preaching the Gospel.” I reply, it is! It is relieving human misery, and thus it is “doing good.” I recognize only Christ Jesus as my master; so that if I can in some humble means endeavour to follow His steps who went about “healing all manner of diseases,” I will rejoice and care little about the world and its judgment.

The Presbyterian Church of his day did care about the world and its judgments, so Mackay’s prophetic efforts got no further than the 1894 General Assembly. The delegation was never sent. In 1895 Mackay returned to Taiwan and the resolution was quietly forgotten. In 1905 the Liberal Laurier government raised the head tax to a prohibitive $500, and in 1923 the Liberal Mackenzie King government barred all Chinese immigration. Now the Conservative Harper government has made an apology and compensation to Chinese Canadians. Surely George Leslie would have some thoughts on how his prophetic words waited over a century to be vindicated. And what would he say to our church today?