This Week in History


Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers

This story was initially published in 2000

On September 25, 1982, a plaque was unveiled in Yale, British Columbia, to commemorate the thousands of Chinese labourers who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Chinese at work on CPR in Mountains, 1884

Chinese at work on CPR in Mountains, 1884
© Library and Archives Canada / C-6686B

British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871. One of the Terms of Union included the promise of a railway to link it with the rest of Canada. As the railway was being completed, many European settlers were hostile toward the Chinese who had been present since the Gold Rush. These settlers attacked the Chinese as "cheap" labour and hence "unfair competition." They called them "sojourners" (temporary workers) who lived cheaply, sent most of their earnings to families in China and intended to return there.

Many believed they were intent on stealing jobs from Caucasian men. British Columbia made several attempts both federally and provincially to ban the employment of Chinese on public works. Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor hired to build the railway from Port Moody through the difficult stretches of the Fraser Canyon, tried to avoid employing them, but soon found that British Columbia had a severe labour shortage. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told the province the railroad could not be built in reasonable time without Chinese help.

Chinese work camp in Kamloops, BC

Chinese work camp in Kamloops, BC
© Library and Archives Canada / C-16715

The Chinese worked hard, but only earned half as much money as Caucasian men. They had to pay for their own supplies and repay Chinese labour contractors for the cost of their passage. Nevertheless, they did send money home to help out their families. Most came from the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, which had been ravaged by years of civil war, severe population pressure and other strife since the end of the Opium Wars with Britain.

The work was dangerous. Deaths from collapsing tunnels and misdirected explosions were common, as was disease. Food was often scarce and the Chinese were not accustomed to the harsh winter weather of the Fraser Canyon. Though no one knows how many Chinese railway workers died along this stretch, reports estimate near 600.

More than 15 000 Chinese workers were recruited to work on the CPR. The contribution of the Chinese Construction Workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway to the history of British Columbia is enormously important and has been recognized as being of National Historic Significance.

For more information on the Chinese-Canadian experience in Canada, please see our story Legalizing Racism, which tells the story of the Chinese Head Tax.

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