Although the majority of British Columbians were of Caucasian descent in the late nineteenth century, it was not the white people who built the railroad; it was the Chinese who carried most of the burden through much sweat and toil. In the 1880’s Chinese labourers were brought over from China, promised good pay, one hundred grams of food per day, clean drinking water and safe working environments. To the Chinese, this sounded like a wonderful new life, a much better one than they had in China. It was too good to be true though.
Thousands of Chinese labourers were disappointed beginning from their first day on the voyage from China to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, right through to its completion. Four hundred grams of food were originally promised to feed four labourers per day, but the reality was that the Chinese labourers had to share the four hundred grams of food between ten people.As well, the Chinese were only given two cups of water each day. It is very difficult to survive, while performing strenuous labour, with this level of sustenance. From the time the Chinese started their voyage over to Canada and until long after the railroad was competed, the Chinese were ill treated and racially discriminated against. Even after the railroad was finished, the Chinese were despised by white citizens all over British Columbia; they were socially isolated from the white people and were driven into designated areas for Chinese only.
The Chinese labourers, who were brought to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR), were misled and maltreated.In the late 1860’s, British Columbia was considering joining the United States. British Columbia, since it was quite isolated from the rest of Canada, thought that joining the United States would be a better than joining Canada because it was a lot closer to the United States than the provinces in eastern Canada.
British Columbia was telling the Conservative Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, the only way that they would join Canada was if they had a railway connecting British Columbia to the rest of the provinces. In 1869, after numerous negotiations with Macdonald, Canada was starting to plan out in the railroad. In 1873, Macdonald’s party lost power and a new Prime Minister, the Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie, took Macdonald’s place. Mackenzie thought that the trans-Canada railroad was a foolish idea. He said that it would be impossible to build through the rocky, mountainous, terrain of British Columbia and so all work on the railroad was stopped.
As a result, British Columbia started pressing to join the United States again. (Burton, Ningyu-Li)In 1878, Macdonald’s party came back into power. No work had been done on the railroad, not even more planning, since 1869. Now that Macdonald was in power, work on the railroad started progressing again. Macdonald divided the western section of the railroad into four separate bids. The bids consisted of: Port Moody to Boston Bar; Boston Bar to Lytton; Lytton to Junction Flat; and Junction Flat to Savona.
A man by the name of Andrew Onderdonk won all of the bids. Onderdonk was an engineer from the United States, who had supervised building of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR) in the northwestern United States.After winning the contracts and more thoroughly surveying the land, Onderdonk realised that if he were to hire labourers from just Canada and Europe, he would have to pay one and a half million dollars for the first twenty-seven kilometres alone. The total cost of his part of the railway, he estimated, would cost three million dollars. He was also overwhelmed at how tough the landscape would be to build a railroad on. (Ningyu-Li, Burton) As the famous Canadian writer and historian Pierre Burton describes:If the railway followed an all-Canadian route, its builders would have to blast their way across seven hundred miles of this granite wasteland, pocked by gunmetal lakes and overlaid with a patchy coverlet of stunted trees.
There were ridges that would consume three tons of dynamite a day for months on end; and where the ridges ended there was another three hundred miles of muskegs which could (and would) swallow a locomotive at a single gulpAlthough Onderdonk was a wealthy man, he realised he would be bankrupt if he used Caucasian workers to build the railway because he would also have to buy any supplies needed for the construction. Onderdonk realised he would have to look elsewhere for the majority of his workers. There were not enough people in British Columbia alone to build the railway, and if he hired only European workers, it would be very expensive. Onderdonk, while supervising the NPR, had hired Chinese labourers and was impressed with the low cost and their hard work. Onderdonk decided he would use the Chinese again, and hired 10 000 Chinese labourers to come over to Canada.
(Ningyu-Li 15-20)The trip over to Canada from China was “a floating Hell on the sea”. Chinese were cramped onto ships, with little space to move, they only got two cups of fresh water per day and only forty grams of rice. The following quotation describes the space on the ships taking labourers from China to Canada: “During the day, the Chinese labourers had to sit shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee and at night they slept with their legs intertwined.” Thousands of Chinese died of starvation and malnutrition even before they reached the mainland. On top of this, the Chinese would have to repay the white men for their voyage, and once they got to the mainland, they would have to pay for their lodging as well. In the contract they were never told about having to pay for their food or lodging, so it came as a large disappointment to the Chinese labourers. Little did they know their plight would only get worse.
(Ningyu-Li pg.20-30)After months cramped in boats, with little food and water, the workers were forced to hike to Lytton, British Columbia, climbing numerous mountains using only shoulder poles to carry all their equipment, food and clothing. All the labourers had was one rope between them, to be used as a safety measure while hiking up the steep terrain into Lytton. These labourers started work in the middle of winter, atop frigid mountains, with little protection from the cold. They only had simple tools like hand drills and shovels, and were expected to do all the strenuous labour while the white men supervised. Many of the Chinese were born in warm, southern China, and were never used to cold mountain weather. The Chinese had no jackets, just the light clothing they had brought from China. Numerous Chinese became very ill from the cold mountain winters and hundreds died.
(Ningyu Li pg. 35-40)The first twenty-seven kilometres of railroad track were very difficult to build. The Chinese labourers were instructed to construct seventeen tunnels and over six hundred bridges. On top of all the difficult work, there were no safety measures. When the Chinese carried the dangerous nitro-glycerine on their heads, or in pushcarts, all there was cushioning any movement of the explosives was one bundle of straw. In some instances, a white supervisor would tempt a Chinese labourer to carry the dangerous explosives into dark caves in promising for the labourer’s wife to have a free voyage over to Canada. Many Chinese labourers jumped at this offer and agreed to carry the explosives.
Unfortunately, many labourers were killed by the explosives being set off by accidental movement. In one instance, “a worker, after carefully thinking it over, took the explosives and made his way carefully into a cave. A series of explosions followed, and the white foreman said to his assistant that this had to be the third one this week, and to go and get another candidate.” (Ningyu-Li, pg.60).
The truth was the white men did not care that they were putting someone’s life in danger by getting them to carry explosives without proper safety precautions. (Ningyu-Li 20-22)The stretch between Yale and Lytton was hazardous and during the construction of bridges, there were no safety measures. There were no ropes tied to anything to protect workers from falling while constructing the bridges; there were no hard hats to protect workers from falling equipment; and the work was not supervised enough. Many Chinese died while constructing the bridges and no one cared. The Chinese were thought of an endless supply of cheap labour. When one died, another worker simply replaced them.
(Ningyu-Li 30-34)There was also a major difference in the labourer’s wages. White foremen, whom had no more experience than the Chinese labourers, were paid twice the amount. The white foremen did very light work. They surveyed the land, planned how the track would be laid, drove the locomotives, and were paid $1.
50 a day. Chinese labourers, on the other hand, did very strenuous labour. They built tunnels, bridges, laid the tracks, and transported numerous tonnes of earth, rock and gravel.
The Chinese did any work that required a lot of physical effort. The following quotation describes the white foremen Onderdonk hired:Onderdonk [contractor for the B.C. line of the CPR] found the white labour that he had received from San Francisco- the only source of supply at the moment- consisted for the most part of clerks out of employment, broken down bartenders and other of that ink, men who had never handled a shovel before and who often appeared on the scene attired in fashionable garments in a rather tattered state, who might be seen in the cuttings with patent leather shoes, much worse for wear and trousers sprung over the foot. (Pierre Burton pg. 260)The white men were all supplied food and lodging. They even had their own cooks and servants. The Chinese though, were crammed into tents with many other workers, and had to pay for their crude lodging out of their salary.
The Chinese would have to pay high prices at the company store for food, clothing and necessities. As well, the Chinese had to pay for broken tools. After paying for all these items, the Chinese had no money left over.
Before paying for necessities, the Chinese’s salary was only about $300 a year. (Ningyu Li pg. 50)In February of 1883, a white foreman charged two Chinese labourers for refusing to do extremely dangerous work. Of course, there were no safety precautions or a safe working environment for the labourers. On their way to court, the two Chinese brandished their tools at the white foreman, so he decided to suspend the two workers.
After their suspension without pay, the Chinese were fined twenty dollars each and returned to work. In another case, in May 1883, a white foreman fired two Chinese workers, accusing them of being lazy, and would not pay their days wages. This aroused anger in fellow labourers and the labourers jumped the foreman. Later that night, twenty white workers got together and lit the Chinese’ tents on fire. Any Chinese who tried to escape were brutally beaten. One labourer was killed, eight others were seriously injured and the local doctors refused to treat them. (Ningyu Li pg.
30)In 1885, after five years, five days and seventeen hours, the railway was finally completed. A white foreman laid the last spike, and then a series of celebrations were held. There were parties, free rides on the locomotives, and thousands of amazed BC citizens, but there were no Chinese labourers at any of the celebrations. The Chinese were not allowed to be at any of the festivities, even though they did the majority of the labour on the CPR. The white men received all of the credit for the railroad; not even a thank you was given to the Chinese. Onderdonk made three million dollars profit and the Chinese “Would have to pass through another hells gate in their lives”.
Before the Chinese were allowed to return home, they would have to pay the money for their original trip over, and then would have to pay for their long, gruelling trip back to China. Few Chinese ever saw their families again because they were too poor to afford the voyage back home. Racial discrimination drove the Chinese into Chinatowns, which were isolated from areas where Caucasians lived. The Chinese were forbidden to live anywhere outside of the Chinatowns. (Ningyu Li pg. 60-63)Clearly, the Chinese labourers were deceived by Onderdonk and his original contracts to work on the CPR. The facts they were given about job opportunities were a lie.
The amount of food supposed to feed four people was actually stretched to feed ten. In addition, the Chinese were paid half of what the white foreman were. A lot of the white foreman did not have any more experience than the Chinese labourers did in building railroads. The Chinese had to pay for the tools they used, the little food they got, and their living quarters; but the white men were given all of this. The Chinese labourers, who worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR), were misled and maltreated.