Built railway, kept deal to join B.C. with newly formed Canada 150 years ago

In his final year in university, Paul Loong 龍佈樂 had to complete a major research paper to get his degree. He did it by collecting the personal history of Chinese immigrants in Canada. Forty-five years later, he reads the paper again and finds new insights on what it means to be Canadian. This article comes on the eve of 2021 when British Columbia will mark its 150th year as part of Canada, made possible by Chinese workers who built the railway to hold the country together.

My Graduation Paper

My goal was straight forward: find elderly Chinese immigrants 老華僑 in Canada, interview them, and write down their life stories.

The idea was that their first-person experience would add a missing dimension to the documented chapter of Canadian history.

Not much of the published material at that time mentioned the perspective of the Chinese immigrants themselves. The National Archives in Ottawa was interested in more information to preserve their place in history.

I was in my early 20s and I travelled as far as my student’s budget allowed to visit the interview subjects. I remember thinking: these guys were ancient, in their 70s and 80s, and I was glad I could talk with them before they were gone forever.

I graduated in 1975 and went on to a career in journalism. My research paper had sat in a storage box all these years.

A few weeks ago, our classmate Siho M. Wong shared a song, The Unsung Heroes, on our WhatsApp group. It is a tribute to the Chinese workers who died while building the Canadian Pacific Railway. The video has been viewed 32,000 times on YouTube.

“All Chinese Canadians should know about this important part of Canadian history,” said Siho, one of the organizers of an exhibit on the subject at the University of British Columbia in 1974,

I agree.

The song made me think about the old times again but from a different angle.

Forty-five years have gone by since I wrote my graduation paper at Carleton University in Ottawa. Like it or not, we are now the 老華僑. What we do in our daily lives today reflects the kind of society we have and our place in it.

For future generations, we will be part of their history.

If a young university student came to interview me now, I would have plenty of stories to tell. My tales would be different from the ones I heard from the 老華僑 of my youth.

I see not only the history, but also the progress we have made in our time.

Here is one story I will tell:

B.C. legislature in Victoria, B.C. Photo by Paul Loong, 2011.

The Victoria Saga

I was working in the 1980s in Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. My job was to report on the politics and law-making at the B.C. legislature.

Victoria, a beautiful city on a big island, is a popular tourist destination in the summer. For year-round residents, it is a safe, comfortable, mid-sized city on the West Coast.

It was a very Anglo city when I lived there, not multicultural like Vancouver or Toronto. American tourists would get off the boat in Victoria and ask: “Where are the Blacks?” The Chinese, Indian, and Native communities were also relatively small in the city.

My wife Leonie and I were newcomers, and it took us a while to fit into this tight-knit society. I remember thinking that our Indian classmates in Hong Kong must have felt this way too. We had stereotypes about their minority community. Even though we were polite, both sides needed to make an effort to break the ice.

It took about a year for me to feel being accepted at work. Leonie and I started getting invitations to people’s homes for dinners and parties. In the following years, we made some close friends who generously welcomed us into their social circles.

One day, a distinguished friend invited me to lunch at his members-only club. He was knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects and we chatted about many of them over lunch.

Our conversation turned to what other countries had done for the good of Canada. The British came up with the parliamentary democracy system that we have adopted. The Americans supplied vast markets for Canadian goods and enriched our economy.

My friend wanted to know: What had the Chinese done for Canada?

I replied instantly: We built the railway and held the country together.

Rogers Pass, B.C., 1901.
Public Domain photo by Richard Henry Trueman. City of Vancouver Archives

My friend looked at me, and then he looked at the table.

He nodded.

We sat in silence for a moment, him of English descent and me of Chinese heritage.

We went back to our drinks, still friends.

I was not offended by his question, as I did not think that he was implying anything.

I thought it was something that we might have asked our Indian classmates: How did you end up in Hong Kong? What had your community done for Hong Kong? (I think some of them would have reminded me their parents fought in defence of Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded in 1941.)

I do not drag around a victim’s mentality. I do not seek out slights and insults from others. We should stand up for our dignity with pride, not prejudice.

I did feel proud that I gave my friend a good, quick answer.

I appreciated that he was not upset with my abrupt reply. It was a small victory of modern-day decency over the bigotry that once existed in this part of Canada.

The Chinese railway workers came so quickly to mind because of what I learned while writing my graduation paper. Being a resident of Victoria, my friend knew the history as well as I did.

Chinese workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1884.
Image D-07548 courtesy of Royal B.C. Museum.

Victoria was where many Chinese immigrants arrived by ship in the 19th Century, seeking better prospects than poverty in their home villages. Some settled in the city and took grinding jobs as laundrymen, cooks, and domestic servants. Others travelled on to the mainland, drawn by the Fraser Valley gold rush, railway construction, and labour-intensive employment such as mining and forestry.

Their growing numbers sparked anti-Chinese sentiments in various parts of the country through the first half of the 20th Century. There were ugly and painful incidents in those early days when the Chinese were literally and legally second-class people in Canada.

It was illuminating to look at the past in the light of the conversation I had with my friend over lunch in 1987, a little over a century after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built.

1887 C.P.R. crossing Skuzzy River, Fraser Canyon.
Public Domain photo by Richard Henry Trueman. City of Vancouver Archives.

Had anything changed since 1885?

A great deal had changed, and we should recognize it as proof of the possibilities and progress that we could create in our time.

A hundred years ago, an Englishman in Victoria probably would not have socialized with a Chinese resident. An exclusive dining establishment back then might not have welcomed a Chinese patron.

I was aware of the segregation in the past, but I had no doubt in 1987 that it would be illegal for anyone to refuse service based on race. The principles of various human-rights laws enacted in the preceding years were gathered into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, giving Canadians constitutional protection against discrimination.

Logo on a commemorative copy of Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Nowadays in Canada, you are second-class only if you let yourself be treated as such. We have the education, connections, and the law to beat back discrimination. Things are better now than they were 33 years ago, and much better than they were 135 years ago.

Formal apologies have been made by all three levels of government – federal, British Columbia, and Vancouver – for past discrimination against Chinese Canadians. We have multiculturalism as official policy in Canada. We have the political will and prevailing social norms on our side.

Yet things are not perfect, and we cannot be complacent. Racism lurks in all societies and Canada is no exception.

We should know that social consensus can be fickle and fragile, and populist opportunists are eager to fan racial conflict for their own gains. Several classmates have expressed worries over the revival of intolerant attitudes in North America in recent years.

We should know our Charter rights and stand up for them. The railway workers of the 19th Century had none of the legal tools we now have. We must use these instruments wisely to fend off discrimination.

At the same time, we should avoid thinking of racism as the only explanation for our problems; sometimes, there are other causes.

Most importantly, we should seek out the common bonds of humanity with other ethnic groups in our multicultural society. It is the best guarantee for peaceful co-existence.

A Glance at History

The Rocky Mountains and the coastal ranges have always been major obstacles for travellers between the Pacific coast and the rest of the continent. Without a railway, British Columbia was cut off from the string of other colonies during much of the 19th century. Those were the times when some people wondered whether these territories would join together as a country or become part of the United States.

Rugged wagon trail in the Fraser Canyon before the railway was built. (Photo by Frederick Dally, 1867 0r 1868. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Four Eastern provinces formed the Dominion of Canada in 1867. British Columbia joined their Confederation in 1871 on condition that a railway be built to connect all of Canada.
  • Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway started in 1878. B.C. politicians wanted to attract workers from Britain, but Ottawa said it was too expensive. In 1882, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald said: “It is simply a question of alternatives: Either you must have this (Chinese) labour, or you can’t have the railway.”
  • The Royal B.C. Museum said there were 9,000 railway workers by the end of 1882, and 6,500 of them were ethnic Chinese employed to build the B.C. segment of the railway through the most treacherous terrain.
  • Canadian Museum of History: “CPR labour contractor Andrew Onderdonk estimated that three Chinese workers died for every kilometre of track laid in the Fraser Canyon.” The canyon was about 270 kilometres long: 270 x 3 = 810 dead.
  • There was no definitive statistics kept. Other death estimates: 600, 1,000, 2,000, even 4,000 but this last figure seems exaggerated.
  • Chinese workers often had the most dangerous jobs, such as using explosives to blow up solid rock. They endured harsh winters, poor living conditions, illness, and malnutrition.
  • Chinese workers received $1 a day as wages, and from this they had to pay for their food and gear. White workers were paid $1.50 to $2.50 per day and did not have to pay for provisions.
  • The Last Spike, the final and ceremonial railway spike, was driven into the CPR track by company director Donald Smith on Nov. 7, 1885. It marked the completion of the railway at Craigellachie near Eagle Pass, B.C. It was also a moment when Canada as a continent-wide country became a reality.
The Last Spike ceremony on Nov. 7, 1885.
Photo: Ross, Alexander, Best & Co., Winnipeg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • There is something missing in the epic photo. The Canadian Encyclopedia points out: “Some 15,000 Chinese labourers helped build the CPR. No Chinese labourer is present in any of the iconic photographs of the Last Spike ceremony.”
  • The B.C. Museum: “ … all of the Chinese Canadian workers were cleared from view. Many people have pointed out the lingering injustice captured in that image: there is not a single Chinese Canadian worker in the photograph, even though Chinese Canadian labourers suffered, toiled and died building the railway that has come to symbolize the unity of Canada from coast to coast.”
  • Once the railway was built, Canada started to discourage immigration from China with a head tax of $50 in 1885. The amount increased to $100 in 1900, and further to $500 in 1903.
  • In 1923, the government banned most Chinese immigrants from entering Canada.
  • In 1947 after the Second World War, the ban on Chinese immigration came to an end.
  • In 1971, multiculturalism became federal government policy under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Links for further information:

Click below to watch the video from the Chinese Canadian Museum: https://youtu.be/SbjWolprOFE

The website of the Chinese Canadian Museum: https://www.chinesecanadianmuseum.ca/

The Song that Wong Siho shared, The Unsung Heroes, was composed by Paul Finkleman of Calgary. Finkleman explained on Facebook:

“In 2012, Calgary’s Chinese Community commissioned this nice Jewish boy to write some songs honoring their Canadian heritage, which we made into a CD. I spent the last month creating a video of one of the songs, ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the thousands of Chinese men who lost their lives building the C.P.R. It’s a truth that needs to be heard … I sang it at their big celebratory banquet, and it received a standing ovation, with many in the audience coming up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes, thanking me for telling their story.”

A song written by Paul Finkleman in 2012

Federal Apology, June 22, 2006


British Columbia Apology, May 15, 2014


City of Vancouver Apology April 22, 2018


Library and Archives Canada: History of Canada’s early Chinese immigrants


The Canadian Encyclopedia on the Last Spike


B.C. Government on Building the Railway


CBC video on Chinese railway workers who died


Videos on Chinese Canadians in Second World War:

Stories from the Northwest: World War II Canadians
Force 136 Chinese Canadian Heroes.
Remembering Force 136.