Breaking the Narrative: A Re-evaluation of the Contribution of Chinese-Canadian Labourers in the Construction of the CPR

-Dana, Grayson, Keith, Lindsay

*illustrations rendered by Milo Groundwater

On July 20, 1885 the Chinese Immigrant Act was passed, setting a 50-dollar head tax on all incoming Chinese immigrants to Canada. This occurred only months before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR), whose vast labour force was largely composed of Chinese labourers. These workers, despite their important contributions to a defining aspect of Canadian confederation, lived in horrid conditions and worked in dangerous areas. Because of the Immigration Act, and systematic silencing of minority history, the impact of these Chinese workers has been thoroughly underrepresented. Through national commemoration on federal currency, this project hopes to rectify the past wrongs of the Canadian government while acknowledging the importance of minority groups in the development of Canada. The grim realities of rail work and the importance of Chinese labourers will be emphasized alongside an image of the completed CPR. By contrasting these images, the value of Chinese labour will be amplified. Through powerful images, this bill will restructure, recontextualize, and ultimately honour the sacrifice of Chinese-Canadian rail workers. 

Suggestions for Further Reading

Goutor, David. “Constructing the ‘Great Menace’: Canadian Labour’s Opposition to Asian Immigration, 1880–1914.” The Canadian Historical Review 88, no. 4 (December 2007): 549-76.

Hau-Hon, Wong. “Wong Hau-Hon, Railway Worker.” In Chinese Americans: Realities and Myths Anthology, edited by Joe Huang andSharon Quan Wong, 14-15.San Francisco: The Association of Chinese Teachers, 1997.

Lee, David. “Chinese Construction Workers on the Canadian Pacific.” Railroad History, no.148 (Spring 1983), 42-57. 

Li, Chris. “The Chinese: a valuable asset to the Canadian Pacific Railway or an ‘evil’ to White labourers?” B.C. Historical News 28, no. 3 (Summer 1995): 9-10.

Sylvester, Erin. “Now and Then: Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial.” Torontoist. Buzz Connected Media, April 28, 2016.  

Woodcock, George. “The Making of Canada: The Canadian Pacific Railway.” History Today 8, no. 1 (1958), 47-55.


2 thoughts on “Breaking the Narrative: A Re-evaluation of the Contribution of Chinese-Canadian Labourers in the Construction of the CPR

  1. This is fantastic work and a great idea for how to get people outside of academia to engage with these forgotten histories. I confess that this bill is one of my favourites!


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