Chinese Labourers Working on the CPR

"Without the Chinese labourers, there would be no railroad."
– Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald

Chinese workers’ lives were difficult and their jobs were dangerous.  Landslides and dynamite blasts killed many.  It has been estimated that at least 600 died during railway construction.  Those workers who escaped death or harm faced certain discrimination and racism.

In November 1885, the last spike of the CPR was driven.  This historic event was captured in many photographs, yet none of the Chinese workers were invited to attend this momentous ceremony.

As soon as the CPR was completed, the Federal Government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese to Canada.  The first anti-Chinese immigration bill was passed in 1885.  It took the form of a Head Tax, imposing $50 upon every person of Chinese origin who entered the country.  The government targeted no other ethic group in this way.
  • In 1900 the Head Tax was increased to $100.
  • In 1903 the Head Tax was increased to $500.  This amount equalled two years'  wages.
  • Chinese immigrants were denied citizenship.
  • The federal government collected $23 million from the Chinese through the Head Tax.
  • In 2006, the federal government offered a formal apology for the fact that the tax was imposed.  The government also acknowledged the stigma and exclusion that the tax represented.
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Royal Ontario Museum
Historical Advisor: Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC)

© 2006, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.

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