A Tribute to the Chinese who Helped Build the CPR, Part II

Iron road, also known as railway tracks

How Much Do We Owe the Early Chinese in Canada?

Maybe a lot. Mr. Doug Hum, from the Ontario Coalition of Chinese Head Tax Families, recently spoke in Victoria about the issues the movie Iron Road raises. It’s about the Chinese who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. He asked a thought-provoking question: “Without the Chinese rail workers, would we even have a Canada?He was referring to Canada as a coast-to-coast nation.

Mr. Hum’s question merits consideration. Here’s something to think about: When the Chinese workers were recruited in 1880, British Columbia was a 9-year old province far away from the central powers in the East. As you can imagine, a clear road to link West to East was a big deal.

The Promise

Indeed, to get the Colony of British Columbia to join confederation (which they did in 1871), the central government in Ottawa had to promise a connection. Ottawa decided to make it a railroad and committed to its completion within 10 years. Nine years later, in 1880, it appeared the job could not be done.

A Bit of the History

[For those who don’t know, British Columbia, Canada’s most Westerly province, is comprised of the “Mainland” and Vancouver Island, plus several other islands.]

Here’s a timeline with a map. As you read, please consider: For the residents of the Colony of British Columbia there were options.

    1. Stay a colony
    2. Join the Dominion of Canada (and hold Ottawa to its promise of a rail link) or
    3. Become a part of the United States of America

Today we all know British Columbia, or B.C., is a part of Canada. Now let’s see how the Chinese workers played their part in the making of the Canadian nation.

1805 Simon Fraser, a British fur trader and explorer put in charge of Simon Fraserthe North West Company’s business west of the Rocky Mountains, gives the name “New Caledonia” to what is now known as the Mainland of British Columbia. (In 1808 he and his men run the rapids of the virtually non-navigable river that is later named after him, the Fraser River.)

1849 Vancouver Island comes to be known as the “Colony of Vancouver Island” (a British colony)

1858 Gold is discovered in the Fraser Canyon. The British colonial powers, feeling threatened by the influx of Americans, designate the Mainland (New Caledonia) as the “Colony of British Columbia.” (Bear in mind that the British had lost their New England colonies when the Americans won their War of Independence less than 100 years prior.)

1866 The colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia amalgamate. (Queen Victoria designates the Lower Mainland city of New Westminster as the capital.)

Stages of Canadian Confederation shown on a changing map

To see map reveal different stages of provinces joining Confederation, go to: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canada_provinces_evolution_2.gif

1867 Confederation of Canada: only four provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. Ottawa is the capital. Canada is a dominion (the “Dominion of Canada”), remaining partly dependent on Britain till well into the 20th century.

[Do check out the cool “moving map,” above, by putting its web address into another tab on your browser.]

The Fate of the Far Western Colony?

Administering such a remote place as the Colony of British Columbia is a downright pain, costly too. Ottawa notes that residents have a tight economic tie with the USA. They’re serviced by the USA, with most, if not all, of their supplies coming in via San Francisco. The Colony’s also in debt. Perhaps the Dominion of Canada should simply let their Colony go?

Admiral Joseph Denham figures the Colony doesn’t merit Royal Navy protection and that Britain should “divest herself of [the colony] by any means consistent with honour.”

What may have been the British consensus at the time was more fully expressed:

British Columbia is a long way off. . . . With the exception of a limited official class it receives few immigrants from England, and a large proportion of its inhabitants consists of citizens of the United States who have entered it from the south. Suppose that the colonists met together and came to the conclusion that every natural motive of contiguity, similarity of interests, and facility of administration induced them to think it more convenient to slip into the Union than into the Dominion. . . . We all know that we should not attempt to withstand them.

1867 The USA purchases Alaska. Canadian/British ambivalence is jolted big time! It’s time for an attitude reassessment. The colony now has the USA to both north and south. Fear mounts that Americans will view the colony as ripe for the taking. Given an Annexation Movement (a clamoring on the part of some to join America), the fears are not unfounded. Also, many Americans believe it is their mission to possess all of North America. They call it their Manifest Destiny.

1869 The USA completes its first transcontinental rail line, bringing more settlement to the West. British interests become more anxious than ever to link East and West. Surely a railway will help lure the colonists to join Confederation? A railway is needed to build a bigger Canada and a stronger national identity!

How the Chinese Appear on the Scene

1871 British Columbia joins Confederation after Ottawa promises that within 10 years a rail line will be complete.

1871-1880 Urgency grows for the coast-to-coast railroad. The Canadian West must be settled, resources tapped and fertile prairie land farmed. A railway is the very thing to promote immigration, allow for the transport of goods, open lines of communication, etc.

1881 It’s been 10 years and the promise of a completed rail line has not been fulfilled. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) is formed to get the job done. Labour is short. Contractor Andrew Onderdonk sets about to recruit Chinese labourers from the United States and from Southern China to fill the gap.

Many British Columbia residents scream foul. “Coolies” stealing jobs from worthy white folk! It doesn’t matter that the CPR has run out of enough white folk willing to be recruited. The prospect of building a railroad through Hell’s Gate and other formidable parts of the Fraser Canyon is not appealing. (Does danger pay even exist?) For extra information, please see Historica Canada.

Chinese labourers on the B.C. portion of the CPR in 1883

1883 Chinese CPR labourers. Photo Courtesy of Royal B.C. Museum

1881-1882 Upwards of 17,000 Chinese labourers are recruited, many directly from China. Exploitation is the name of the game. Not knowing the language and not having any rights to protect them, the Chinese are extra vulnerable. Being paid about half the amount of the other workers, they’re barely able to subsist.

The work is brutal for all labourers, no matter what the ethnic persuasion. Many workers are maimed or killed. As recounted in Part I, the most deadly of jobs, however, are reserved for the Chinese, and it appears they account for the greatest number of casualties. Graves, with or without markers, are hastily dug and line stretches of the railway.

In Part I, be sure to read about the horrific nitroglycerin explosives that the CPR used for tunnel blasting. The movie Iron Road has some dramatic scenes.

CPR locomotive exits Lower Spiral Tunnel, about 1100 feet in diameter. Trains over 85 cars pass over themselves, as shown here. David R. Spencer photo

CPR, “Lower Spiral Tunnel, about 1100′ in diameter. Over 85 cars pass over themselves, as shown here.”

1885 Albeit four years late, Victory! The grueling construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in British Columbia is complete.

Canadian Pacific Railway last spike, Craigellachie, BC, Nov. 7, 1885

Canadian Pacific Railway last spike, Craigellachie, BC, Nov. 7, 1885

The above photo shows a number of the top brass. Click here to see an alternate photo showing the workers’ last spike, if you’re interested.

Opening the Door

CPR Canadian immigration poster

National Archives of Canada C-137975

As a form of compensation, the Canadian government has already granted vast tracts of land to the CPR, 25,000,000 acres,  or 100,000 kilometers’ worth. The land provides the CPR with a means to make profit and the government, combined with the company, a means by which to populate the West.

CPR agents choose “desirable” areas of the world to launch advertising campaigns to lure white immigrants to a “wonderful new life” in Western Canada. The door is opened wide, and hundreds of thousands arrive from the USA and Europe.

It’s a different story for the Chinese. Others may be wanted but not them. Many impoverished rail workers are not able to return to China, nor are they able to bring their families to join them. Just before the railway’s completion in 1885,  the Canadian government introduced the Chinese Immigration Act in an attempt to keep the Chinese out. In 1923, the government virtually banned them altogether with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The former rail workers, bereft of the hope of ever seeing their families again, live their remaining days at the mercy of endemic racism in a country that they helped build with their strength, dedication, endurance and personal sacrifice.

chinese immigration exclusion in canada

A cartoon encouraging the exclusion of Chinese immigrants appeared in the B.C. Saturday Sunset newspaper on August 24, 1907. (Vancouver Public Library)

Final Say

In 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway claimed a victory that helped create a nation. Could they ever have done it without the heavy price paid by the Chinese? Personally, I think not. What are your thoughts?

As a Canadian, who enjoys the rewards of all our ancestors’ sacrifices, I have something to say to Chinese Canadians: For all your ancestors who helped build our country, thank you.



By | 2017-05-28T18:37:19+00:00 October 11th, 2015|China & Chinese Culture, Historical Matters, Movies|24 Comments

About the Author:

Ramona McKean is creating a "Bridge of Light" (aka “a Bridge of the Heart”) to promote cross-cultural appreciation and awareness. An author and speaker, she lives in Victoria, BC, Canada.


  1. Dan McKean October 12, 2015 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Mom, a great summary of a period in Canadian history. If the railroad was not completed it seems unlikely that BC would have remained a part of Canada. It would have been such a remote and distant land separated by the Rockies and thousands of kilometers of vacant prairie land (with exception of First Nations Peoples who lived there), it just wouldn’t have made sense for Canada to keep the region in confederation.

    The idea of the railway not being completed is a neat one to imagine. What would the map of North America look like? Would the United States have struck a claim to all the lands between Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest? If Canada didn’t have this western region would there have been a push to develop the prairies? If not, then Quebec would make up a much larger proportion of the country. Canada as we know it would have a much different character!

    Overall this two part blog has been enjoyable to follow. The argument that Canada having its western province of British Columbia as direct result of 17,000 migrant Chinese workers is quite compelling. I echo your final thought of the post, many thanks to the brave Chinese workers who sacrificed so much to help Canada build its railroad.

    • Ramona October 19, 2015 at 9:14 pm - Reply

      Dan, you pose some interesting questions. There’s a fair chance the map of North America would look quite different! The boundary between the USA and Canada in western North American was settled at the 49th parallel in 1849, with Vancouver Island (that’s us) being allowed to stay with Britain.

      Well, the border between the Gulf Islands, near us here in Victoria, was pretty vague and a war called the “Pig War” broke out! Did you ever hear of that? It was on San Juan Island where both Brits and Americans lived. Apparently a pig belonging to a British guy started eating in the American next door neighbour’s garden. The American shot the pig.

      American soldiers were dispatched to the island, as well as British war ships. A war cry of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” resounded in the USA. Angry Americans wanted to take over a huge chunk of what’s now BC, all the way to north of Fort St. James. Twelve years later, the “Pig War” dispute was finally referred to international arbitration. Then after a year of proceedings, in 1872, arbitration favoured the USA. A pig died but luckily no humans did.

      By this time, BC was in Confederation and the government had to scurry to get a railroad built. With the help of the Chinese, the railroad was finished and BC was more securely a part of Canada.

  2. Xin Meng March 19, 2016 at 7:42 pm - Reply

    It is a nice follow-up to the first part with a clear timeline of what happened during the years leading up to the completion of the railway. You offered some valuable background information to highlight the importance of the railway to British Columbia and Canada. I agree with you that without these Chinese workers, there would not have been such a railway, and there would not have been a Canada like today.

    You expressed your thanks to Chinese Canadians for their ancestors’ contribution to Canada, and I think the Chinese Canadians would thank you in return for your thinking of these Chinese “coolies” who lived and died over 100 years ago as you enjoy today the rewards of their sacrifices. I should say “thank you” too!

    • Ramona March 20, 2016 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Xin, for your acknowledgement. You always leave such thoughtful comments. 🙂

  3. Phoenicia April 4, 2016 at 12:15 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. It does us good to know what others did before us and the great battles they fought. We live as we do today because of these people.

    I cannot imagine the awful treatment the Chinese people endured.

    • Ramona April 4, 2016 at 8:51 pm - Reply

      Many of our ancestors faced huge obstacles, as they contributed to the development of “the New World.” (Many of their stories died with them.) If they were not from northern Europe, they often were the target of racism. One set of my grandparents emigrated from Italy in the 1920s. To compound my grandfather’s problems was the fact that he was illiterate; my grandmother only had primary school education so was minimally literate. Learning English made a big difference and, “of course,” with being white they had it much easier than the Chinese.

  4. lenie April 4, 2016 at 4:24 am - Reply

    Ramona, being a Canadian I should know all this and I probably did at some time, like highschool, when history wasn’t a priority. Of course I knew that the railway was the factor that connected the country but never considered what would have happened without it. And then to think about all the natural challenges they had to overcome. What an amazing piece of history.
    After the States buying Alaska it would have seemed quite logical for them to think to connect Alaska with the rest of their country by taking over B.C, which would logically have led to the Northwest Territories and on to Alberta. Maybe at that time there might not have been a way of stopping them.
    So thank goodness for the Chinese workers, even though it was a disgrace the way they were treated during the building of the CPR but especially afterwards.
    We hear so much about apologizing by government to the Native Canadians – have they, to your knowledge, ever apologized formally to the Chinese?

    • Ramona April 4, 2016 at 8:58 pm - Reply

      Lenie, I don’t recall being taught much of anything regarding the role of the Chinese. Not that I wasn’t, mind you.
      Yes, an apology was formally made, but not till the 21st century. Better late than never, I suppose. Political and economic considerations probably played a role in the government’s decision to apologize.

  5. Sabrina Quairoli April 4, 2016 at 11:42 am - Reply

    This is a fascinating history. Thank you for sharing. I am from the U.S. so I do not know much about the history. This step by step history helps outsiders like me understand the history. Thank you for sharing.

    • Ramona April 4, 2016 at 9:03 pm - Reply

      Sabrina, as I did my research for this blog, I came across information on Chinese rail workers in the USA. I did not dwell on it because it was not my focus. It would be interesting to see a side by side history of Canada and the US as regards this topic. The similarities would be striking I believe.

  6. Ken Dowell April 4, 2016 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    An interesting history. When you look at the 19th century history of the U.S. and how aggressive the country was in carrying out its so-called “Manifest Destiny” it is a little surprising that there wasn’t more of a push to annex BC to the U.S. I guess the west is just so vast in North America that we didn’t have enough land-grabbing cowboys to go around. The history of railroads in general is also really interesting. For about 50 years or so they really opened up the world and moved all sorts of people to places they never otherwise would have seen. But their relevance faded as fast as it emerged once we hit the era of the personal automobile..

  7. Erica April 4, 2016 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    When I moved to Los Angeles, I was shocked to learn that they don’t have almost any commuter trains. I was so used to being able to jump on the train and go anywhere on the East Coast. Unaware, I book a trip on Amtrak train to go to Northern California. Well, to my shock, my scheduled train travel was 3 buses and one short ride on a train. And the driver missed my bus stop and drop me off 3 miles from where I was supposed to be. That made me realize how valuable the train tracks are.

    It’s amazing to understand what a difference train travel to Canada in the 1800s. It wasn’t that long again, but we can forget the origins of things we’ve completely taken for granted within our own lifetimes.

    • Ramona April 4, 2016 at 9:43 pm - Reply

      Erica, I grew up on the West Coast but have a sense of what you mean about a lack of commuter trains. On the Coast, and other places too, there is such a motor vehicle consciousness–cars mostly, or buses. Such a great dependence we have, not like other places where not having a vehicle isn’t that huge a deal. Now, it’s like smaller (non-continental) passenger trains are for tourism, if they even run at all.

  8. Marquita Herald April 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    I’m always fascinated by stories like this, and this one in particular reminds me so much of our own history in the islands. Substitute the sugar plantations for the railroad and it was pretty much the same. On the plus side, between the native Hawaiians and so many people coming in from other countries to work the plantations, these days the Island remain one of the most diverse areas in the country and the real miracle is everyone gets along!

    • Ramona April 5, 2016 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Marquita, at the end of your blog posts you have written, in reference to yourself, “She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.” I relate with how you feel and what you believe. I/We look at the world and see that some “cruel” past wrongs done to particular groups of people have been “rectified” in as much as apologies have been expressed. Then we look around and see the same kind of cruel behaviour persisting in many places of our world.

      Are we evolving? Overall, I think so, albeit slowly perhaps. It’s for you and me and other concerned people (and there are many) to do what we can to shift the consciousness of the world towards understanding and a greater compassion. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  9. Kristina Rylova April 6, 2016 at 5:31 am - Reply

    Ramona, thank you for posting this story.
    It is very interesting and honestly I could not have imagined that the story of the Chinese community in Canada dates back so long time ago and is so important. Very educating.

    • Ramona McKean April 6, 2016 at 10:59 pm - Reply

      I just did some checking, Kristina, and discovered that the Chinese in Canada actually date back even further, to 1788! Thank you for your response.

  10. Catarina April 6, 2016 at 6:56 am - Reply

    It’s not for nothing the Chinese have made a huge contribution wherever they have gone. They work 24/7 and local businesses hence frequently lose customers and sometimes even have to close down. Do you know why the Chinese work 24/7? It’s because of rice farming where small things have to be done 24/7 or you may not be able to harvest and will hence starve.

    • Ramona McKean April 6, 2016 at 11:03 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your interesting perspective, Catarina. I’ve been to China three times for extended visits and can that it really is true that the Chinese are a hard-working and enterprising people. They do not expect nor do they sit around and wait for anybody else to do anything “for” them.

  11. William Rusho April 11, 2016 at 6:57 am - Reply

    A great continuation of your last post. People do not comprehend how important the railroad was to North America. It combines the west and east coasts that were only available by a long sea or cross country wagon trail. The Asians were truly the backbone that built the railroad.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  12. Ed April 26, 2017 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Thank you, Ramona McKean, for your insightful tribute to the early Chinese immigrants of British Columbia. My book “Yut Di–One Earth” coincides with your research; we also share much of the same sentiments about social justice. This is an amazing amount of dedicated research for someone who isn’t Chinese. Today, people seem to be more sympathetic towards victims of historical injustice, such as the internment of Japanese during WWII and the injustice to the Indians on the Komogata Maru. I have difficulty believing that their suffering can compare with that of my predecessors, who helped to build the railway, 81,000 of which paid over $23 million (wikipedia has updated to $33 million) during a time when inflation was non-existent and while Alaska was purchased for just $7.2 million. The government of Canada did issue a formal apology for the Head Tax, 121 years after it was enacted, on June 22/ 2006. Head Tax victims or their spouses were to receive $20,000 in compensation. “Fortunately” for the government, only 20 were still alive. Ramona, I look forward to reading your book “Dancing In the Heart of the Dragon.”

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