Chinese Railway Workers In 1880’s B.C. Were Really "Temporary Workers: Some Canadian History To Review On Our National Holiday, July 1

June 29, 2005: Chinese Railway Workers In 1880’s B.C. Were Really “Temporary Workers” : Some Canadian History To Review On Our National Holiday, July 1


As most Canadians know, the building of the Trans-Canada Railway in the early 1880’s, mostly by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, was a momentous event in Canada’s history because it literally united the country from east to west.

On July 1, our national holiday, Canadians should take note that the 10,000+ Chinese who were brought here from China to work on a small part of the railway (the B.C. portion) came here solely as “temporary workers”. They brought no women or children because the Canadian government and the contractor who brought them here expected the workers to return to China after their work-time had expired.

Immigration Watch Canada notes that1880’s reactions to potential high immigration were contemporary expressions of cultural and economic absorptive capacity (that is, cultural and economic limits). There are many interesting similarities between what occurred in the 1880’s and what is happening today, 120 years later.

A. Although over half of the Chinese workers left Canada after their work had ended, a large number who did not leave illustrated the oft-made point that there is nothing more permanent than temporary workers.

B. Many of those left behind in Canada were ill-prepared to stay here. Almost none of them spoke any English and many came into conflict with local workers and worker organizations by accepting wages lower than those paid to local workers. In effect, they weakened the development of a B.C. workers’ movement (at that time in its infancy) by acting as a damper on wage demands by local workers and as strike replacement-workers.

C. The large numbers of non-Canadian workers were brought in because of miscalculations in contract estimates by management. Like today, this resulted in a large transfer of capital from workers to management. There were a significant number of unemployed Natives in B.C. at the time.

D. British Columbia and the rest of Canada had strong British connections. Like today, in contrast to China, both also had relatively small populations. In the 1880’s, general Canadian and B.C. fears of being culturally overwhelmed and of being economically displaced were logical and common expressions of the cultural and economic absorptive capacity (limitations) of any country.

E. Current immigration policies are a logical denial and abandonment of cultural and economic absorptive capacity expressed in the 1880’s and now. These policies are euphemistically termed “multicultural”, but this term really means “high immigration” and “ethnic catch-up” policies. Ultimately, they cause cultural and economic displacement of the host population. As critics have pointed out, high immigration is the oxygen for multiculturalism. Without it, multiculturalism would wither and face its natural end.

F. As critics repeatedly said in the 1880’s and continue to say now, immigration policies at all times have to be based on the needs and interests of Canada.

Here are important notes taken from Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike.

(1) Andrew Onderdonk was the engineer-contractor responsible for building most of the B.C. section of the Trans-Canada Railroad and for eventually bringing in the Chinese temporary workers.

(2) Onderdonk, the descendant of Dutch New Yorkers who had arrived there in 1672, represented a large American syndicate with almost unlimited funds and had a solid record of large American projects completed on time. The government of Canada awarded B.C. railway contracts to Onderdonk’s syndicate because it was fearful of other contractors’ ability to finance and complete railway contracts (as had already occurred in Manitoba in the 1870’s).

(3) Onderdonk’s first contracts were signed in 1880 with the government of Canada. His total contracts eventually involved constructing a railway from the B.C. coast almost to the B.C.–Alberta border. Onderdonk’s syndicate was separate from the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The C.P.R. , formed by Royal Charter in February, 1881, was to build the largest sections: (a) one from existing eastern Canadian railroads across the top of Lake Superior; (b) a second across the current prairie provinces to connect with Onderdonk’s B.C. line in the B.C. mountains.

(4) In return for giving contracts to Onderdonk, the Government of Canada asked that since Canadian money was to be spent on the construction, that employment be given to the surplus white Canadian labour of B.C. and of Canada. Onderdonk agreed, but said, if necessary, he would hire others in the following order: French Canadians, Native Indians (the largest group in B.C.) and Chinese. In 1880, there were about 35,000 white citizens and about 3000 Chinese in B.C., The latter had come north from California for the B.C. Gold Rush of 1858-1870. As Pierre Berton observed in The Last Spike, “…all of them (were) prepared to work for lower wages than any white labourer; that was the chief cause of the discontent.”

(5) The syndicate which Onderdonk represented had bid on a number of the B.C. contracts but had failed to get them because its bids were too high. Through a series of dishonest transactions, the Canadian government awarded these contracts to Onderdonk’s syndicate. In total these contracts (and other costs) were almost $2 million less than Onderdonk’s own bids. These contracts put enormous pressure on Onderdonk’s group to keep labour costs down.

(6) Onderdonk had to pay general labourers between $1.50-$1.75 a day. Skilled labour such as carpenters cost him $2.00-$2.50 a day. Chinese workers worked for $1 a day, agreed to buy provisions at inflated prices at company stores, accepted lower quality working conditions and were easier to manage.

(7) A total of 10,387 Chinese came from China as temporary workers. Another 4,313 came from American ports. The workers from China mistakenly overestimated or were deceived about the time they would work on the railroad and consequently overestimated the income they would accumulate in their time in B.C. They came without women and were supposed to return to China. B.C. railway contracts ended in the mid-1880’s. According to Pierre Berton, “…the census figures of 1891 indicate that some five thousand coolies were unable to go back to Asia in the years following the completion of the Onderdonk contract.” Some who did return to China later came back to Canada with wives.

(8) Testimony in an 1885 Report of The Royal Commission On Chinese Immigration by a Chinese witness stated that a Chinese railway worker was left with $43 after a full year of railway work at a $25 per month salary. Berton states: “That scarcely covered his debt (about $40) to the steamboat company” which had brought him to Canada. Typical yearly expenses were clothes ($130); room rent ($24); tools and fares ($10); revenue and road taxes ($5); religious fees ($5); doctors and drugs ($3); oil, light, water and tobacco ($5).

(9) Cheap Oriental labour saved Onderdonk between $3 to $5 million. (The entire revenue of the Canadian federal government around the time of Onderdonk’s and the CPR’s work was a little over $30 million per year.)