In TALONS this week, we’re talking about the history of Canada, especially around the time of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. British Columbia only agreed to join the Confederation of Canada if the government would agree to build a trans-continental railway to connect BC to the rest of Canada. There was a deadline of 10 years set, so the government really had to work hard to finish it, after progress had been halted due to financial difficulties. The cheapest way for CPR to complete the railroad was to bring a bunch of immigrant workers from China, and pay them up to a third-less than other European immigrants to do the labour. Nowadays, these Chinese workers are celebrated, and much is made of the tough conditions they worked in, but how much have the working conditions really changed?
This is the statement from the Canadian Pacific Railroad, regarding the use of Chinese immigrants to help build their railroad.
On May 27, 2005, Canadian Pacific Railway named the railway interchange in Kamloops, British Columbia after Chinese labourer Cheng Ging Butt. The Cheng Interchange honors the many labourers who toiled, some sacrificing their lives, to build the western section of the CPR from Port Moody to Craigellachie, BC. For many years, the contribution of the Chinese railway workers went largely uncelebrated. Fifteen years ago CPR, working with the Chinese community, erected a monument in Toronto honouring Chinese railway labourers. More recently, the Royal Canadian Mint launched a two-coin commemorative set marking the 120th anniversary of the completion of the CPR and the important part played by the Chinese workers in building the railway. In 2005, CPR, once again building track to expand in the West, took the opportunity to celebrate the Chinese workers from the 1880s with the dedication of the Cheng Interchange.
Huh. That’s very nice and all, but it doesn’t tell the true story. What really happened was that the white people didn’t treat the immigrants very well. The Caucasian overseers were abusive, both with their language, as well as their actions, often whipped and beaten. They also disregarded any contracts signed by the Chinese. Where it said they would only work in 8 hour shifts, the Canadians had them working 12. The crews were short-staffed, yet the company expected quicker and quicker progress, in order to meet deadlines. It was no wonder that more than 600 workers died trying to complete the tunnel. In addition to the hard work, workers were also subject to atrocious living conditions. Resorting to wrapping their feet in newspapers in order to ward off the frostbite, the Chinese were totally unprepared to work in the winters of BC, many of them having never even seen snow before. There was little to no food, many days there was barely enough fuel to cook the food, let alone heat the cabins. The cabins themselves were ramshackle, insulated by newspaper, tin, even mud was used as a way to try to stop the chilly wind from blowing. It was miserable, and the worst part was that at the end, they were cheated out of their wages. Already being paid less than other workers, they also had to pay off expenses of the cost of passage, rent, food, tools, and clothing, everything that they used, they had to pay for. Even in the winter, when it was too cold to work, they were still charged for expenses, although no wages were coming in. By the time all expenses had been deducted, there was not enough money to even go back to China, let alone be rich, as they were promised in the ads. This led to the growth of Chinatown in Vancouver. Overall, it was a horrible situation, from start to finish.
Many people claim that working standards have improved, yet have they really? Just recently, men were found to be living in a logging camp that was like that of a “third-world country.” This in Greater Vancouver, which has been voted as the nicest place to live. Sure, it’s nice to live, but these working conditions were horrible. 25 men slept in shipping containers, with little food, no safe water to drink, and no toilet facilities. They’re meals went something like this: For breakfast, bread, with jam or peanut butter. There was no lunch served, and it was unrefrigerated meat for dinner. Yummmm. In fact, when the workers went on strike to protest their long working hours, often up to 14 hours a day, they had no food at all, in an effort to force them back to work. All this shows us is that although there is lots of talk about how much we have improved, the government and the companies haven’t. They try and gloss over their mistakes, refuse to publicly acknowledge the horrors they inflicted, and continue to violate workers standards. In fact, it was just recently that the Canadian government apologized for the head tax placed on all Chinese entering the country, in 1885. That’s 1885. They didn’t apologize until 2006. That’s more than a hundred years, 121 to be exact, that this country has tried to hide the fact that they racially discriminated against minorities trying to make a better life for themselves. We say that we have improved, but have we really?