The True Heroes of the CPR

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?

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.

Historical Voices – John Russell

To the Right Honourable Poulett Thomson


I am writing this to you in the hopes that you can give me some of your esteemed advice upon the following matters regarding Upper and Lower Canada.


I have been, as you know, promoted to be in charge of the Colonial Office in Britain, and right now my biggest problem is Upper and Lower Canada.  These French are so depressing.  They refuse to do anything.  All they are interested in is making sure that the English commit no perceived slight against them.  They don’t want to merge with Upper Canada, they don’t want to accept ANY taxes at all, they don’t want anything except to make sure that England can’t do anything.  It’s ridiculous!  I mean, NO TAXES?  How else will the British Empire support itself.  It’s almost treasonous not to pay taxes!  Ha, next they’ll be wanting a responsible government!  And I will not stand for that.  They haven’t proven themselves to be anything other than a bunch of violent rebels.  Yet, though they haven’t proven themselves to be responsible at all, they are already demanding privileges!  I am almost at my wit’s end.  I don’t know what to do.  I wish that I could just leave it all for someone else to sort out.  I’m sick of this mess.  I’m sick of these French people.  I’m sick of Lower Canada.  I’m sick of Upper Canada.  I’m sick of the continent of North America in general!  It wasn’t enough for those Americans to revolt and force us into a war, and this was after we just HELPED them in a war, but now Canada wants to break away too!  At least the Maritimes are still in our control.  I have heard rumours of a rebellion starting to break out in Canada.  I think that we should send someone over to Upper and Lower Canada to see what the state of our colony is.  Someone who we don’t need…..perhaps someone like John Lambton?  Sometimes I feel so depressed.  Upper Canada, long a stronghold of the English, is beginning to crumble.  Even with the recent infusion of Loyalists, the people have been slowly turning.  They are starting to take the lead of Lower Canada, and their recent rebellion.  And I say rebellion in that it wasn’t a revolution, and thankfully, the British army showed their military might and quickly crushed these misguided fools.  They seem to think that they can face the might of the British Empire and come away victorious.  Yet I simply can’t drive it into their heads  I feel like we have nobody over in North America that we can trust to uphold Britain’s values and beliefs, except for Sir Francis Bond Head.  A commendable man, the epitome of an honest British man.  In essence, the perfect person to run Upper Canada.  He knows what he is doing, he continues to be loyal to Britain, and is firmly allied with the Family Compact.  Exactly what we need.  We must send more men like him over. I am stuck at home in Britain, relying on, for the most part, worthless men to act as my consort in North America.  It is like being blind, mute, and deaf all at once.  I don’t have a true grasp of the situation, and no way to act upon it.  Meanwhile, at home, the public is getting more and more restless over our spending on foreign wars, and much of that blame is falling upon myself.  I am in a very tight spot, and  I have come to you, as you have always provided me with sound counsel in the past.  I hope that you can show me a path that I can take to regain full control over the British Empire’s territories, and continue to accelerate my path to hopefully achieving the post of Prime Minister.




Anxiously awaiting your advice,

Lord John Russell