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Canadian Pacific Railway. The Canadian Pacific Railway.

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the canadian pacific railway
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.
building the cpr
Building the CPR

Construction crew at Rat Portage (Kenora), Ontario, winter of 1881-1882. The Government of Canada undertook the construction of the transcontinental railway from the Lakehead to Winnipeg, Manitoba. This was difficult terrain, much of which was muskeg country, necessitating the construction of many trestles. In the late 19th century, a key agent of national unity was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which physically united our vast landscape through wood and steel.

driving of the last spike
Driving of the Last Spike

The CPR Division Point at Donald, B.C. was located 107.5 miles (170 km) east of the site of the driving of the last spike – signifying the completion of the CPR – at Craigellachie, B.C. on November 7, 1885. Not everyone associated with the construction could be present on that occasion, and these workers in the vicinity of Donald posed for their own version of the event.

chinese camp
Chinese Camp

15, 000-17, 000 Chinese labourers came to work on the railway between 1881 and 1884.

Chinese workers were paid $1.00 a day, while labourers or European descent received $1.50 to $2.50 a day.

chinese labourers outfits
Chinese Labourers Outfits

This is an example of the kind of clothing that Chinese labourers would have worn while working on the Canadian Pacific Railway (the CPR). It would have been affordable because it’s made of inexpensive, coarse, indigo-dyed cotton – similar to denim.

The wide waistband makes it easy for the wearer to step into and out of them, and also makes it easy to fasten them without a belt. On rainy days, the pant legs can be rolled up to prevent them from getting wet and soiled. We know that these workers’ lives were difficult and that their job was dangerous. They did the most back-breaking jobs, in harsh conditions and in difficult terrain. This means that comfort and versatility would have been very important. The loose-fitting nature of the outfit allows the user freedom of movement while working and also air circulation, thus reducing perspiration. And the outfits could easily be swapped between father to son.

life of a chinese labourer
Life of a Chinese Labourer

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.


Chinese workers’ lives were difficult and their jobs were dangerous.  Landslides and dynamite blasts killed many.  It has been estimated that at least 600 died during railway construction.  Those workers who escaped death or harm faced certain discrimination and racism.In November 1885, the last spike of the CPR was driven.  This historic event was captured in many photographs, yet none of the Chinese workers were invited to attend this momentous ceremony.As soon as the CPR was completed, the Federal Government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese to Canada.  The first anti-Chinese immigration bill was passed in 1885.  It took the form of a Head Tax, imposing $50 upon every person of Chinese origin who entered the country.  The government targeted no other ethic group in this way.

In 1900 the Head Tax was increased to $100.

In 1903 the Head Tax was increased to $500.  This amount equalled two years'  wages.

Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship.

The federal government collected $23 million from the Chinese through the Head Tax.

In 2006, the federal government offered a formal apology for the fact that the tax was imposed.  The government also acknowledged the stigma and exclusion that the tax represented.

railway complete
Railway Complete

Finding Work

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.

Above: Employee of the Innisfail Laundry, Innisfail Alberta 1904

Left: A Chinese man using traditional pole baskets to carry his vegetables from door to door

discrimination challenges
Discrimination – Challenges

Many Canadians discriminated against the Chinese. The Chinese looked different, spoke a different language, and brought their own ways of life with them from China. Many Canadians had never met a Chinese person and formed false opinions out of fear. If each group had known the other better perhaps there wouldn't have been as much prejudice.

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.

canadian pacific railway12
Canadian Pacific Railway

"Without the Chinese labourers, there would be no railroad.“– Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald