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Chinese Canadian life on the railway

Overview of the set

This set of History Docs invites students to determine what life was like for Chinese railway workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway after examining a variety of primary and secondary sources including photographs, newspaper articles, telegrams, websites and books.

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Primary sources

1. Chinese at work on the C.P.R. mountains |

2. Housing built for Chinese labourers working on the C.P.R. |

3. Chinese workers' camp on the C.P.R. |


4. Yale Sentinel newspaper account of Chinese deaths |

5. A group of Chinese men gambling under a makeshift awning near Kamloops |

6. A telegraph from Alex Tilloch Galt to John A. Macdonald in 1883 |


7. Chinese workers on the C.P.R. |

8. Telegraph from Lieutenant-governor to Secretary of State |


9. Chinese work gang |

Secondary sources


1. The Chinese experience in B.C.: The railways |


2. The national dream |


3. From China to Canada |


4. The railway builders |

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Student tasks

Question: What were working and living conditions like for Chinese workers participating in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway?

When determining what life was like on the railway for Chinese workers, you may want to consider the following aspects:

  • living conditions
  • quality of life
  • working conditions
  • payment and compensation
  • leisure time

Teacher notes

The following notes on topics addressed in the History Docs are intended to enhance teachers' understanding of the sources and ability to guide students in interpreting them.

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Historical context for teachers

Building the Canadian Pacific Railway

  • Prime Minister John A. Macdonald wanted a transcontinental railway built to link all the Canadian provinces together. He also needed to fulfill the promise he made to British Columbia (B.C.), when they joined Confederation in 1871, that a railway would be built to link them with the rest of Canada within 10 years.
  • Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.) began in 1874 and was organized into a series of separate sections that moved westward from Ontario and eastward from the BC coast.
  • Little progress was made in the first five years of construction due to financial struggles, political scandal and instability.
  • In 1879, American contractor Andrew Onderdonk was awarded the contract to build the B.C. sections of the railway that ran from Port Moody to Eagle Pass.
  • Aware of the anti-Chinese feeling in B.C., Onderdonk promised that he would give white workers preference and would only hire Chinese or First Nations peoples if there were no available white workers. It proved difficult to complete the railway on budget without cutting costs somewhere, so Onderdonk got permission to hire more Chinese workers, who he could pay less than white workers.

Chinese workers hired

  • One month into construction, Onderdonk began hiring experienced Chinese railway workers from San Francisco and Portland. Between 1880 and 1881, over 1500 experienced Chinese railroad workers from the United States were hired.
  • In 1881, Onderdonk hired Chinese and non-Chinese labour contractors to recruit and transport workers directly from Chinese coastal provinces. There was an abundance of Chinese workers looking to emigrate because of social and economic upheavals. In total over 17 000 Chinese immigrants arrived between 1881 and 1884, of which over 10 000 came directly from China.
  • The majority of the Chinese workers who worked on the C.P.R. were employed on the B.C. sections. At the peak of railway building, Onderdonk employed 6000 Chinese workers and 3000 white workers.
  • As many as 1000 Chinese workers lived in each of the different construction camps established at key points along the railway, including Yale, Port Moody and Savona’s Ferry. Little is known about life in the railway camps because almost no Chinese-written records or diaries have survived. Historians do believe that the camps may have included services such as restaurants, barbers and stores.
  • Each camp had an agent of the contracting company who organized contracted workers into gangs of thirty, complete with their own cook, bookman and non-Chinese foreman (or “herder”) who worked for the construction company.