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.
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
Here’s a timeline with a map. As you read, please consider: For the residents of the Colony of British Columbia there were options.
- Stay a colony
- Join the Dominion of Canada (and hold Ottawa to its promise of a rail link) or
- 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 the 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.)
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.
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.
1885 Albeit four years late, Victory! The grueling construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in British Columbia is complete.
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
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.
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.