They say there’s a dead Chinese man for every mile of the track.
Building the Canadian Pacific Railway
Canada needed a railway that would stretch from one side of the country to the other. Andrew Onderdonk, a New York engineer, was given the contract to build the portion of the railway from Port Moody to Eagle Pass, near Revelstoke, British Columbia. The land in this area was mountainous, making the work difficult and dangerous. Workers were in short supply. Between 1881 and 1884, as many as 17 000 Chinese men came to B.C. to work as labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Chinese workers worked for $1.00 a day, and from this $1.00 the workers had to still pay for their food and their camping and cooking gear. White workers did not have to pay for these things even though they were paid more money ($1.50-$2.50 per day). As well as being paid less, Chinese workers were given the most back-breaking and dangerous work to do. They cleared and graded the railway’s roadbed. They blasted tunnels through the rock. There were accidents, fires and disasters. Landslides and dynamite blasts killed many. There was no proper medical care and many Chinese workers depended on herbal cures to help them.
The Chinese railway workers lived in camps, sleeping in tents or boxcars. They did their own cooking over open outdoor fires. They mainly ate a diet of rice and dried salmon, washed down with tea. With their low salaries they could not afford fresh fruit and vegetables, so many of the men suffered from scurvy (a painful disease caused by a diet without vitamin C). The camps were crowded. Diet and living conditions were poor. Many got sick. In the winter it was very cold and the open fires were the only way of keeping warm. Whenever the workers put down more tracks, the camps had to be moved further down the line. When it was time to move camp, the Chinese workers would take down their tents, pack their belongings and move everything to the next camp, often hiking over 40 kilometres.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885, the railway workers needed to find new jobs. Several thousand Chinese workers returned to China after the railway was completed. Many more could not afford the cost of the ticket. Many stayed in British Columbia, especially in Victoria and Vancouver. Some settled in the small towns along the railway line. Some Chinese people became gardeners, grocers, cooks or servants in wealthy White households.
Moving east, the Chinese mostly settled in towns and cities, opening laundries and restaurants or cafés. These businesses didn’t need much money, the knowledge of English or special training. Some workers found mining jobs in what is now Alberta, others worked as cooks on farms and cattle ranches. These jobs were seasonal and so they had to return to cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Red Deer for the winter.
Some Canadians thought that the Chinese would take jobs away from them. Others had wrong or exaggerated ideas about the way the Chinese lived. They were accused of being dirty and disease carriers because of their crowded living conditions. Chinese workers were paid less than white workers because many people believed that the Chinese needed less to live on. They thought that the Chinese were content to live with less and would settle for food that lacked variety and quality. Because most early Chinese immigrants were men, people assumed they had no families to support. Many Chinese were called names and were victims of physical assault. Chinese could not even be buried in public cemeteries with non-Chinese.
Head taxes and exclusion act
While Europeans were being offered free land to come to Canada, in 1885, the Canadian government created a “head tax” to limit the number of Chinese coming to the country. This meant that any Chinese person wanting to come to Canada had to pay $50.00 to the government. This made it harder for Chinese workers to come to Canada and for those already here to bring their wives and children over from China. It was a lonely life for the men living for many years away from their wives and families. Many never saw their families again. Because of the way they were treated, some men chose not to bring their families to Canada. They did not want them to suffer the same treatment that they had experienced.
One man reaches up towards the large wooden log—big enough to crush him—and braces himself against the trestle. Another man stands high on top, directing the log with just a rope, pulling it up to build the next tie on a railroad. This scene would have been common across the country as workers built the Canadian Pacific railway from coast to coast in the 1800s. Now, these men, cast in bronze, stand near the Rogers Centre in Toronto, as a permanent reminder of the thousands of workers—many of them Chinese labourers, overworked and underpaid—who died building that railroad.
It’s Rail Safety Week and April 28 is the annual Workers Day of Mourning, and so it’s a particularly relevant time to look at the lives and deaths of the Chinese railroad labourers, who worked in dangerous conditions and died in large numbers. Estimates of how many Chinese workers died building the railroad vary widely. The grim saying, immortalized in an iconic Heritage Minute (below) is that one Chinese worker died for every mile of track laid. The Canadian Encyclopedia, published by Historica Canada, which also makes Heritage Minutes, uses the estimate “at least 600” dead in its articles. The memorial puts the number at over 4,000.
Even those who survived building the railroad often couldn’t afford to return to China or bring their families to Canada. They were left without jobs in hostile territory. The railroad workers memorial notes that it also memorializes these men, saying, “With no means of going back to China when their labour was no longer needed, thousands drifted in near destitution along the completed track. All of them remained nameless in the history of Canada.”
On June 22, 2006 Prime Minster Stephen Harper gave a full apology for the Chinese head tax and for the ban on Chinese immigration from 1923–1947, calling them “malicious measures aimed solely at the Chinese.”
They were mighty. They helped unite our country from sea to sea. Today we have THE CANADIAN linking us together as one.