How did the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) culturally and socially affect the Chinese?

A. Historical Significance: 

Outline the focus of your inquiry and provide background knowledge. Why is this an important and significant question to ask about the past? Provide evidence from primary and secondary sources.

John A. Macdonald took power in 1867 and promised to build a transcontinental railroad that would link British Columbia to the rest of Canada, leading British Columbia to join confederation in 1871. However, critics critiqued that building a railroad through the Rocky Mountains was far too costly and a waste of manpower. Macdonald eventually lost power in 1873 and came back in power in 1878. This time, after a fierce argument in the Canadian House of Commons, the railroad was granted permission to be built on February 15, 1881. In order to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, also known as the CPR, the prime minister provided 25 million dollars and 10 million hectares of fertile land, and a tax exemption. In return, the railroad had to be completed within a decade. Workers were required to construct the CPR and instead of obtaining Canadian workers, the prime minister got Chinese Canadian workers to complete the job. Despite working for hours everyday with dangerous dynamites and countless deaths, they were only paid between $1 to $2.50 per day.


Image courtesy to The Critical Thinking Consortium

The question about how the Chinese were affected throughout the time the CPR was being built is significant to ask because in the modern day, the image that Canada portrays to the rest of the world is not what it was like back in the 1880s. Although everyone’s view on Canada differs, the stereotypical image of Canadians are being extremely polite and apologetic for the smallest things. This is the complete opposite of Canada during the building of the railway. It’s peculiar how not many people seem to know about this part of Canadian history and only remember Canada as a “nice” country. Within a couple hundred years, the way people perceived Canada completely turned around. After Chinese workers were no longer needed to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, the federal prime minster imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants in 1885. This was later raised to $500 when Sir Wilfrid Laurier came into power in 1903. However, in 2006, prime minister Stephen Harper acknowledged that the tax was discriminatory and decided it was right for the Chinese descendants of the workers to receive a compensation for the head tax and the ban on Chinese immigration.


1. Cause and Consequence:

Why did your researched events happen the way they did and what were the consequences?

Since the prime minister, John A. Macdonald, wanted a way to connect from one end of Canada to the other, he decided to build a railway from Port Moody to Eagle Pass, near Revelstoke, British Columbia. Compared to the European labours who contributed to the building of the CPR, Chinese Canadians were in work conditions that were significantly poorer and had to deal with severe discrimination. According to the Daily Commercial News, “The railway work was dangerous and physically demanding, requiring drilling through mountains of solid granite in order to build tunnels. Chinese workers were also not allowed to handle dynamite and other explosives, but nonetheless fell victim to dynamite explosions, rockfalls and landslide that took place without sufficient warning. Poor nutrition, crowded living conditions and cold winter weather also contributed to sickness and disease, including respiratory ailments and scurvy.” However, not all parts of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway was bad. Since the First Nations were also doing the most dangerous work along with the Chinese Canadians, a strong bond formed between the two groups. Whenever the Chinese were being heavily mistreated, the First Nations supported and aided them. 

Not only were the workers affected, the workers’ families back in China were also heavily impacted. Those who survived building the railroad often times couldn’t afford bringing their families from China to Canada and had to live by themselves. Furthermore, because of the implementation of the head tax, children of the workers struggled to pay off the enormous amount of debt. For instance, a man named James Pon took 17 years to pay off the debt after his father paid the $500 head tax to bring him to Canada.

Image courtesy to The Critical Thinking Consortium

2. Ethical Judgement:

Is what happened right and fair by the values and standards of the time? How about from our current values and standards? Explain.

Considering how after the Canadian prime minister implemented a head tax after he realized Canada didn’t need Chinese Canadian workers to build the railway, it can be inferred that the actions were right and fair by the value and standards of the time. If John A. Macdonald knew it was unjust to labour Chinese Canadians to the extent where they had to risk their lives, he would’ve never put the head tax into effect and instead showed some form of reparation for his past actions. That, however, never happened. 

In modern day Earth, it is extremely inequitable and racist to labour a certain group of minority– especially in a developed country– such as Canada. If the Chinese were to be forced to work for hours every day, lived in poor conditions such as camps and sleeping in tents or boxcars, and get paid no more than $2.50 each day today, the probability of protest and riots are immense. Since Canadians have the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication under the Canadian Charter of Rights, the likelihood of continuing to be forced under harsh labour is miniscule. For example, after the shooting that happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, thousands of protestors were insisting stricter gun control laws and banning the private ownership of military weapons. A specific example in Canada would be the anti-Muslim and anti racist protestors voicing their views on a false claim that an Asian man cut of a Toronto girl’s hijab back in January 2018.


Image courtesy to The Critical Thinking Consortium

B. Social Studies Inquiry Processes:

What conclusions can you reach about your question, based on the research you conducted?

Culturally and socially, Chinese workers were heavily discriminated during the time the CPR was being built. However, things didn’t get any better after the CPR was completed. The Chinese continued to face discrimination even as their task was fulfilled and were either forever separated from their families or had to pay a head tax to bring them to Canada. When comparing Canada then versus now, it is evident that society has changed everyone for the better and things like hard labour don’t exist anymore.


Primary Sources:

Secondary Sources: