How many Chinese died building the CPR?

The article "Honouring the Past," The Daily News, July 25, explained that a Torontonian was making a pilgrimage across Canada to honour the memory of those Chinese who died building the CPR in B.C. in the early 1880s. Figures of a 15,000 Chinese workforce and a death rate of over 5,000 were quoted.

Having researched the history of railway building in B.C. for many years, I realized that these figures were grossly inflated and need to be refuted. But first let it be said that nobody knows the exact or close answer because no records have ever surfaced.

In the past 35 years four eminent authors - starting with Pierre Berton and his "National Dream" - have all referred to the Chinese labourers, if briefly, in their narratives about CPR construction. Rough consensus is that peak labour force was about 7,000 men, 25 per cent Caucasians and the balance Chinese. Estimates of fatalities were less focused, ranging from 600 to 1,500 and up.

My own guesstimate is quite conservative, placing the force at 4,000 Chinese and total at little over 5,000. Up to now no consideration has been given as to whether deaths were caused by accident or sickness but the distinction seems relevant.

In the high winters the labour force was laid off for three months and the Chinese had to fend for themselves, being exposed to inadequate food, clothing and heating. It is probable that more died through sickness than accident. On this basis for the six years, 1880-1885, I have calculated work deaths at 200 and sickness deaths at 400, totaling 600.

Thirty years later we do have a precise measuring tool. One of the contractors building the Kettle Valley Railway provided statistics for one year commencing June 1, 1913. His average labour force was 1,538 men and he suffered 10 fatalities.

This whole subject of Chinese involvement needs deep and painstaking research so we should look into academia to get us closer to what really happened.



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