A Canadian Pacific Railway freight train travel between Lake Louise and Banff within Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, file photo. [Photo/IC]
While Canada Day celebrates the anniversary of the country’s Confederation in 1867, few Canadians may know of the contributions to national unity made by Chinese railroad workers, who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway that united the new nation’s east and west sections.
At an annual Canada Day wreath-laying ceremony in memory of Chinese railroad workers in Toronto, David Choy, executive chair of the National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC) said that without Chinese railway workers, Canada would not be what it is today.
In 1871, when British Columbia (BC) became Canada’s sixth province, a key aspect that persuaded the province to enter confederation was Canada’s promise to build a railway to connect the Pacific Ocean coast to the rest of the country. One of the hardest parts of building the railway was cutting through the Rocky Mountains.
“Canadian railway workers refused the work through the impossible terrain of the Rockies. Chinese railway workers, not knowing better of the risks hidden from them, were brought in from Guangdong, China, to build the railway,” Choy told China Daily, after he and other NCCC members laid a wreath at the Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial.
Between 1880 and 1885, as many as 17,000 Chinese men went to BC to work as labourers on the CPR. They were paid less and given the most backbreaking and dangerous work to do, such as blasting through the Rocky Mountains. More than 4,000 of them died during the construction — in landslides, cave-ins, disease and explosions — and they were paid half of what the other workers received.
“Chinese railway workers sacrificed more than one life per mile of track. This was the buried history of blood and tears,” Choy said emotionally.
However, Chinese workers were discriminated against while they were nation builders of Canada. In 1885, immediately after construction of the CPR was complete, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, putting a head tax of $50, that later went up to $500 per person on Chinese, to discourage them from entering Canada.
On the anniversary of Confederation in 1923, the day the Canadian Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect, came to be known as “humiliation day”. It wasn’t until 1967 that the final elements of the Chinese Exclusion Act were repealed.
Advocacy for redress of Canada’s anti-Chinese immigration policies began after the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1947. The growing calls for an apology for the historical injustice have not ceased since.
Two national organizations, the Chinese Canadian National Council, and later the NCCC, established in 1992, put pressure on the government to acknowledge and address its history of anti-Chinese immigration policies.
“For 27 years, we have always advocated legal justice and social justice, righting historical mistakes and protecting the rights and interests of Chinese Canadians,” Choy continued.
With intense pressure and perseverance from the Chinese Canadian community, a settlement was reached in 2006 — 121 years after the first head tax was placed — when then-prime minister Stephen Harper offered an apology and compensation for the head tax paid by Chinese immigrants.
“Chinese Canadians and Canadians, therefore, must learn, preserve and educate current and future generations so history is not repeated. We will continue the efforts for the protection of justice and social justice for all Chinese Canadians,” said Choy, adding that it was heartening that the Chinese Canadians of today are participating as full members of Canadian society.
On this Canada Day, NCCC members from across Canada gathered and joined in the 20th anniversary of the NCCC Toronto parade in the celebration of Canada’s birthday, with Canadians from all walks of life. They presented ceremonial wreaths at the Chinese Railroad Workers Monument that marked the end of the parade route.
“It is highly appropriate to pay tribute to them during Canada Day celebrations,” said Ping Tan, honorable national chair of NCCC, who was the founding executive chair and served in that position for 18 years. “The Chinese Railroad Workers’ legacy and their contributions to the building of Canada should be remembered and acknowledged.”
The inscription on the memorial monument reads: “Dedicated to the Chinese railroad workers who helped construct the Canadian Pacific railway … uniting Canada geographically and politically … All of them remained nameless in the history of Canada. We erect this monument to remember them.”