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George Leslie Mackay and the Poll Tax, by Michael Stainton

Vol. 6, No. 2 (2010): 49–69.


George Leslie Mackay (1844–1901) is a national hero in Taiwan, father of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, and the first Canadian missionary sent overseas by a Canadian Church, to Taiwan (Formosa) in 1871. He was the most famous Protestant missionary of his generation. He is almost unknown in Canada today. Even less known is the fact that he was the most prominent and outspoken opponent of the first poll tax (head tax) imposed on Chinese immigrants by the Canadian government in 1885. Beginning with his first return to Canada from Formosa in 1881, he began to speak against this “unequal and unjust law”. On his second and final return to Canada, in 1893, his “uncompromising opposition to all restrictive legislation against the Chinese” was fired to a fury by the attempt of the Customs Officer in Vancouver to impose the head tax on his Taiwanese wife. Mackay crossed the country speaking out against the “anti-progressive, anticommercial and anti-Christian” law, encouraging resolutions in public meetings. He gained much support in the church, but no prominent Canadian politician or newspaper publicly supported his campaign. In 1894 he was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Through his urging, the General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the head tax, and proposing to send a delegation to visit Ottawa on this issue. Unfortunately, the whole plan was quietly dropped after Mackay returned to Taiwan. Had Canada listened to Mackay, there would have been no need to apologies to Chinese Canadians. Mackay is the prophetic pioneer of Canadian anti-racism.

Author’s bio

Michael Stainton is a Research Associate, of York University, and is the Secretary of Canadian Mackay Committee. His areas of specialisations are Taiwan indigenous peoples, Taiwan politics, and Canadian missionary history. Recent publications include “Nationalist Party”, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Modern China (Cleveland: Gale Publications, 2009); “Relieving Human Misery: George Leslie Mackay set the tone for progressive missions”, Presbyterian Record, January 2007; and, “Taiwan Aboriginal Peoples”, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, 2nd ed., vol. 3: Asia and Oceania (Detroit: Gale Research, 2009; first published in 1998). Current work involves the editing a volume of papers drawn from a conference on Religion and human rights in China, and assembling writers for an edited volume on George Leslie Mackay.


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