The Indigenous people

When the first European explorers arrived in British Columbia, the Songhees, Esquimalt and Haida Nations were already living there. They were forced to cede their territory. The Europeans needed cultivable lands to settle on. 

Indigenous life greatly changed with colonization.  Diseases, especially smallpox, were brought by Europeans and killed many members of Indigenous Nations. Indigenous people has more contact with Europeans and immigrants from other areas of the work. This impacted some of their traditional ways of life. Indigenous people of various First Nations and the Métis Nation were displaced from their traditional lands to make way for settlements and relocated to reserve land. Many Indigenous children were also forcefully removed from their families and communities in order to attend residential schools between 1831-1996. The residential school system has had intergenerational impacts on Indigenous people across Canada.

The Chinese

Chinese immigrants arriving from California or China did not have an easy life at first. Many of them had come to British Columbia in the hopes of finding gold and making a fortune. Some of them were recruited as labourers for the construction of the railway. Some workers were also recruited to maintain the railroad after its completion. In China, the population had grown and Canada, which was three weeks by boat across the Pacific Ocean, seemed to be an interesting place to emigrate.

Chinese immigrants were employed as unskilled workers in the construction of the railway for $1 a day, a very low wage at the time, plus they had to pay for their tools and equipment. In comparison, other Canadians were paid between $1.50 – $2.50 a day and had their equipment paid for. Chinese workers were also given the hardest and most dangerous tasks. When the Canadian Pacific railway was completed in 1885, many Chinese workers had to find new jobs. Some returned to China, but most could not afford the trip back home.

Many settled in community in British Columbia and established Chinatowns in the cities. Some became gardeners, grocers, cooks or servants. Others worked in the mines and fish canneries. Chinese Canadians had to face racism and discrimination.

In 1885, after the completion of the railroad, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was passed by the Government of Canada. This acted forced Chinese immigrants to pay $50 a person when they arrived to Canada. The goal of this act was to slow down Chinese immigration. You can learn more about the experiences of Chinese railroad workers on the The Ties that Bind website.

  Number in 1901 Number in 1911
Indigenous peoples 28 949 20 134
Chinese 14 885 19 568


Table Source: Canada Year Book

 Text reference: Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada. The Ties that Bind. (2010) Accessed Feb. 8, 2024. 

Author: Service national du Récit de l’univers social

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