Disclaimer: I discuss a variety of topics related to racist and discriminatory policies in the late 1800s from the perspective of people at the time and how they justified it. If you are not comfortable with this, please refrain from reading my document of learning.

What factors did caused Canada to overlook the working conditions for Chinese immigrants of the Canadian Pacific Railway construction?

It is not secret that the Chinese immigrants brought to build the Canadian Pacific Railway suffered from harsh working conditions. They often times were put in dangerous working conditions with minimal safety equipment. However, this is imparting our current values and beliefs upon the past, and it would be unfair to do so without comparing these working conditions to other construction jobs at the time. If the working conditions were different, there could be a variety of reasons, but one prevalent one would be valuing the completion of the CPR and it‘s economic value over that of the working conditions. So how did Canada overlook the working conditions for Chinese immigrants of the CPR construction due to the economic benefits of completing it faster?

A group of Chinese workers working on the CPR.

The working conditions of the CPR would astonish today’s society and not be acceptable. They often had to do dangerous jobs with minimal safety equipment such as using dynamite to make tunnels. The workers worked from sunrise to sunset everyday with only three breaks during the day; most of them ended up being tired out. In addition to this, they were unable to eat any nutritious food due to having to pay for their own food on a meager wage of $1-$1.5 a day, while also paying for lodging and tools. Because of these conditions, 2 workers died for every mile of track laid. However, the conditions didn’t need to be this way. These conditions mostly applied to the Chinese immigrants that came for work, but there were also Caucasian workers working at the same time. In stark opposition to the previous working conditions, the Caucasian workers were paid $1.50-$2.50 a day and also were supplied with food, tools, and lodging, while also not being subjected to more dangerous jobs such as demolition. This shows that Canada at the time was able to support the Chinese workers more but just chose not to. From an ethical standpoint, we are able to see the injustice and discrimination policies at the time, and conclude that the working conditions for Chinese immigrants were unfair and could be prevented.

A sign advertising for workers.

At this time in history, there were many discriminatory policies in place against immigrants. The construction of the CPR demonstrates this in many ways. At the time, it was considered okay for the Chinese workers to be paid less and have more dangerous conditions. This was justified in many ways by many people at the time, and these justifications would not be okay in today’s society, but were acceptable at the time. Based on the fact that better working conditions were able to be achieved, but weren’t given to Chinese immigrants, it can infer that one of these justifications was brought by thinking about them being “disposable” and “inferior”. This is proven by the fact that they were brought over to Canada with the promise of work, but were not brought back to China, despite being promised. They were seen as a workforce and nothing else. On the other hand, the Caucasian workers were seen as more valuable and as people, not a workforce. Based on current society’s standards, this would be completely unacceptable, but at the time it was seen as simply a cost cutting measure. Another justification was the thought of getting the railway done faster. If the railway could be completed, it would bring a lot of economic benefits to the newly formed Canada in an easy mean of transportation to the pacific coast. Some of the harsh work such as unsafe dynamite procedures as well and long work hours less was simply because the railway was wanted to get done faster.

This treatment of the workers shows what was considered acceptable by Canada at the time. It was unfair and unjustified. Through comparing the working conditions that they faced, we get a deeper understanding of why they were what they were. The two main factors for Canada willing to overlook the terrible working conditions were the fact that they thought it culturally acceptable to do so, as well as valuing the completion of the project over that of the workers. By understanding Canada’s darker past, we are able to both see how much our society’s ideals and values have changed over time, as well as how to prevent something that goes against these values in the future.