For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real…
And many are the dead men too silent to be real
Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, 1967
When I was a teen I crossed Canada by train, from Pacific to Atlantic. I marvelled at how big Canada was and how breath-taking the Rockies were. I doubt my youthful mind gave much, if any, thought to the construction of the railroad.
Just this past summer in Victoria, I watched a special presentation of the 2009 movie Iron Road, about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Peter O’Toole (in one of his last roles) and Sam Neill both gave great performances. Though there were some aspects of the plot I found inauthentic (the feminism of the lead character and her romantic relationship with the white boss’s son), the movie was worth watching for its shedding of light on some little known historical events.
The story takes place in the 1880’s, during the construction of the Fraser Canyon section of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. It was a time of pushing an “iron road” through dense forests and rock-solid mountains. The wilderness, stunning for its beauty, was also unsparing in its brutality. To construct a railroad through this vast wilderness proved to be a feat of staggering proportions.
A labour shortage in 1880 vexed the contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, who set about the hiring of 1000s of Chinese men, many directly from China. These are the men featured in Iron Road.
Chinese labourers were called “coolies,” a disparaging term used to refer to “unskilled Asian workers.”
The Chinese word Kǔlì 苦力 means “bitter strength.” All rail workers—Asian, white or otherwise—needed to be strong to keep pace with the gruelling work. The Chinese, however, needed more strength than the rest. They needed the strength to survive unjust, racist treatment.
The Chinese were not wanted by the people of British Columbia. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, saw the Chinese as an answer to the labour shortage and a way to save money. His blunt response was to the effect that “either Chinese workers and a railroad or no Chinese workers and no railroad.”
The Chinese were paid $.75 to $1.25 per day, approximately half of what other workers made. They had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to work-sites, etc. Iron Road shows clearly the kind of dangerous jobs reserved for them. Most notable involved the handling of nitroglycerine explosives, used for the blasting of tunnels. Nitroglycerine is a substance so unstable that any unsteady movement is apt to set it off prematurely. Whether by accident or illness—scurvy was a common one—many Chinese died. To top it off, the injured or sick were denied access to company medical care, a very real example of adding insult to injury.
Families of the deceased Chinese were given no compensation; nor were they even informed. Later, many of those Chinese who’d survived had no money to return home. They spent the rest of their days isolated and poor in a country that didn’t want them.
Not only that. Upon completion of the railroad, the Canadian government passed laws designed to keep their wives and children and other Chinese out. See Part II of this blog to get a sense of this dark chapter in Canadian history.
A Fitting Response
Though it’s been many years since those hard-working men lived and died, I believe it’s fitting for us to stop and consider the phenomenal sacrifice and contribution all the railroad workers made, especially the Chinese.
Take the train or even drive through this area of central British Columbia, in particular, and you’ll get a graphic idea of what I mean. Just look at the tunnels blasted through mountains and consider: It was the Chinese who did that treacherous work!
Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy
In 1966, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) commissioned Gordon Lightfoot to write a song to celebrate Canada’s 1st Centennial. Fittingly, the song was first made public on January 1, 1967 by means of a special CBC broadcast. The structure of Lightfoot’s song is brilliant. Notice how its varying tempo captures both the feel of a train building up steam, slowing down, etc. and the emotional changes experienced by the workers. Indeed, what a vast land this is and how heroic the early builders of this land were! (Thank you, Gordon Lightfoot, for a beautiful beautiful song.)
Now here’s a little preview of what to expect in Part II of this blog, which pays tribute to the Chinese who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Preview to Part II
We’ll explore the validity of a thought-provoking consideration: “If not for the Chinese, would Canada as a coast-to-coast nation even exist?”
Please visit Part II and find out the historical “validity” of the above statement, made in reference to the Chinese who helped build the railway. Until then, when you cross tracks, take a moment to think about the untold sweat and sorrow of the men who built the original iron roads, wherever those iron roads may be.
A drink to the livin’ and a toast to the dead…
Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, 1967