RAILWAY NOVEL: Death on the Tracks

Wed, Jan 21st, 2015 9:37:50 am

          A common question is: how many Chinese workers died during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway?
          Sadly, no one knows for sure, not even the experts.
          Chinese-language historian Lee Dong-hai estimated in 1967 that 600 men were killed but UBC professor Edgar Wickberg found that number to be "conservative."  Canadian railway worker Wong Hau-hon said in a 1926 newspaper memoir that 3000 Chinese had died from disease and accidents.
          UVIC historian Patricia Roy found two numbers during her research. In 1883, Chinese merchants of Victoria, B.C. said that 2,200 Chinee died the previous year. An 1885 newspaper said that 1500 Chinese rail hands died of sickness.
          In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the Head Tax and Chinese exclusion, and cited 1000 Chinese deaths during the building of the C.P.R.
          How do these numbers, which don't even include the deaths of non-Chinese navvies, jive with other Canadian disasters?
          At the top of that list is the Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918-1919: 30,000 to 50,000 deaths.
          Other high death tolls were: 2000 deaths from the Halifax Explosion, 1917; 1012 deaths when the RMS Empress of Ireland sank in 1914; and 1321 deaths in the Cape Breton coal mines, 1866 to 1987.
          The term "disaster" is rarely linked to the building of the CPR, yet the number of workers' deaths would place it among events seen as great Canadian tragedies. I guess no one want "disaster" linked to "nation building."

Kamloops Chinese Cemetery, before renovations
Kamloops Chinese Cemetery, before renovations.
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