The Chinese and British Columbian History

Looking around, it is easy to see that there is a large Chinese influence on the towns of Canada, mainly BC. It is interesting to note that what appears now as a very cohesive and multicultural population in Canada, it was not always so. Canada too, was at once a very racist country that used immigrants for their own good and prohibited the entry to their country when laborers were not needed. The Chinese were manipulated as cheap labour for centuries in Canada until only recently, where their rights and freedoms became acknowledged by the government and civilians.

Though not many Chinese have immigrated to Canada before the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, there were recorded travels between China and Canada before then. The first recorded visits by the Chinese to BC was in 1788 when 30 – 50 Chinese ship builders were employed to build a ship at Nootka Sound (on the western side of Vancouver Island).

The first large rush of Chinese immigrants came in 1858 to Vancouver Island from California during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. When these Chinese immigrated from California, it also sparked much immigration from China. While mining for gold, the Chinese turned out to have techniques and knowledge that were better than others. Even when the gold rush ended, the Chinese stayed there longer than others. At Barkerville, a large Gold Rush town, over half the population of the town was estimated to be Chinese (which is still amazing compared to the Asian-oriented cities of today).

After the Gold Rush, the next large rise in the immigration of Chinese people was during the building of the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) in British Columbia. BC Politicians originally pushed for an immigration program from the British Isles to provide laborers for the railway, but John A. Macdonald (Canada’s first Prime Minister) insisted on employing the Chinese to build the railway to cut costs. In the Parliament in 1882, he said “It is simply a question of alternatives: either you must have this labour or you can’t have the railway.

Originally, Chinese laborers were enlisted from California. However, they soon left for the Gold Rush. Andrew Onderdonk, the CPR construction contractor, signed several agreements with contractors in Guangdong province, Taiwan and Chinese companies in Victoria. This brought in over 5000 Chinese workers by ship from China. This job, however, was full of dangers and difficulty. By the end of 1881, over 1 year after Odnerdock enlisted Chinese workers, the number of workers fell from 5000 to under 1500. These Chinese left for good reasons too: the work was dangerous, the Gold Rush was occurring at this time, and they were paid very poorly. Their pay was only $1, which is less than a third of what white, black or native workers would be getting doing the same job. The living conditions were quite poor too. Along with Chinese railway workers in Ontario and the Prairies, they lived in canvas tents that did not provide adequate protection from the weather and falling rocks. All Chinese railway workers would live in these, while foremen, shift bosses and railway men from the UK slept in sleeping cars and railway-built houses.

From: Horizons - Canada Moves West

From: Horizons - Canada Moves West (Pg. 206)

After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, many Chinese were left without work. Canadian citizens felt that the Chinese were taking away their work. To prevent further immigration from China, the Government implemented The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885. This “Head Tax” charged $50 on any Chinese coming into Canada. While $50 was a large sum of money at the time, it did not completely deter all Chinese immigration to Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act, 1900 raised the fee to $100 per person, and then later The Chinese Immigration Act, 1903 further increased it to $500, which would be equivalent to around $8000 (in 2003) per person. At this time, it would be the cost of a house in Canada or two years’ salary in China. The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 (known as the Chinese Exclusion Act) created an outright ban on all Chinese immigrants except for merchants, diplomats, students and “special circumstances” cases. This act was created due to a post-war recession. It was the first and only ban that excluded explicitly on the basis of race in Canada. The Chinese who immigrated before 1923 were required to register with authorities. Due to this act, the Chinese population went from 46 500 in 1931 to 32 500 in 1951. These acts also separated the Chinese families. In most cases, the men would go to Canada and save money to get the rest of their family to immigrate to Canada. Due to the cost of immigration, saving up this money while sending money back to support your family was a very difficult thing to do. The act was repealed in 1947.

In 1980, there was a growing movement in Canada demanding payment and apology for the inequality and injustice against the Chinese during the Immigration Act. Though there was support, this apology and payment did not come until more recently. In January, 2006, former-Prime Minister Paul Martin issued a personal apology on a Chinese-language radio program. In June later that year, recently elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in Parliament. He said payments of $20 000 would go out as repayment of the head tax.

The end.


One thought on “The Chinese and British Columbian History

  1. A very well supported and thoroughly documented history of the Chinese in British Columbia, Justin. I like how you have divided up your provided history into the various waves of immigration, covering not only what brought the Chinese into various areas of North America, but the opportunities and hardship they faced once here. Great use of links, and well-chosen image also!

    Mr. J

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