February 24th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 8
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
A Historic Chinese Puzzle
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
One of 3 new pillows at Hillcrest with Cumberland disasters on it
At the 2004 unveiling of the statistical pillows at the Hillcrest Monument an invited guest by the name of Bill (Bronco) Moncrief, the Mayor of Cumberland on Vancouver Island, pointed out a missing statistic to me at the ceremony. It was my worst fear come true; that an important tragic event would get by me somehow and not get onto the master list for the pillows. The master list was a compilation of every coal mine disaster in Canada of three men or more.

I eventually went on to revisit those statistics and a total of 19 items were added to three new pillows that were installed in 2014 at the hundredth anniversary commemoration. There are a total of 6 Cumberland/Comox mine disasters that total 77 men on the pillows and I had in fact missed three of them. The missed disaster Montcrief spotted occurred on August 30th, 1922 at the Comox #4 Colliery in Cumberland when a broken electric power cable ignited methane gas. It took the lives of eighteen men. Nine were Chinese, 6 were Japanese and 3 were (as the mine's report terms them) white.

While doing the monument research I noticed that the BC Annual Mines’ Reports showed no Chinese were ever reported as working in the mines in BC’s central and southeastern coal mining districts. No doubt this had a lot to do with a deliberate screening process fueled by unsubstantiated stories of them being the cause of some of the awful mine disasters that befell Vancouver Island mines. In all 295 men died in the Cumberland Mines.
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I wondered then, where and when did all these Chinese men come from that worked at the coastal collieries from 1887 on. At the time of the 1922 accident at Comox #4 there were 369 Chinese and 121 Japanese out of a total force of 836 underground workers at that mine. A little research revealed that the gold rush on the Fraser River in 1858 had a lot to do with their eventual presence there.

As soon as word hit San Francisco that year about the Fraser gold strike men like Chang Tsoo and Ah Hong made a beeline for Victoria, the jumping off point for the rush. They were the very first Chinese immigrants to Canada and the first Chinese gold prospectors on the Fraser. By January 1860 some 1,195 Chinese fortune hunters had passed through Victoria on their way to the mainland gold fields. Up to 7,000 Chinese, mainly single men coming via the United States landed in British Columbia in the early 1860's.

An interesting side note to the Chang Tsoo and Ah Hong story is that 70 years earlier 50 Chinese artisans and carpenters accompanied British sea captain John Meares to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island to help build a non-indigenous settlement to develop a year-round fur trade in sea otter pelts between Natives there and Canton, China. Unfortunately the Spanish still ruled the roost in the area at the time and drove the English off. Many of the Chinese decided to settle on the island and sought shelter with the locals. Reports years later by American sailors and Hudson Bay Company traders told that these Chinese had blended into Native society quite well. There were Chinese-Native unions and children but apparently through the years indigenous culture and language prevailed and all trace of these original Chinese gradually disappeared.
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There is another interesting story from Nootka Sound that I will share soon about a Nootka (Mowachaht) Chief named Maquinna and an 1802 massacre known as the John Hewitt Story. The Mowachaht are Nuu-chah-nulth and are part of 15 related tribes of the Nootka Sound/Pacific Northwest Coast area.

The gold rushes were not the only reason though that Chinese immigrated to Canada. Events in China prior to the rushes also drew them here. They were firstly the Opium War which began in 1839 and led to the ruin of Cantonese textile firms and tea trade and the Taiping Rebellion of 1851 which resulted in a civil war in which 20 million people died and many were left homeless, jobless and poor. For some of them emigration was the only way out of poverty. If you really want to understand where China is today and what the British did to that country study the opium war history at length.

They learned of the gold strikes and of work opportunities in North America. The Canadian and American railways, as we know, used cheap Chinese labour to open up the Western frontiers. They were denied full citizenship rights in B.C. and in the words of the 1884 Canadian Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration they were:"living machines worked for the benefit of progress and free enterprise." The 15,000 Chinese who toiled for Andrew Onderdonk to complete the CPR between 1880 and 1885 saved his company an estimated $3 million to $5 million. They were in his words "industrious and steady" and he said that the "development of the country would be retarded and many industries abandoned" without them.
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Racial "accidents" gave rise to that terrible saying that "for every foot of railway through the Fraser Canyon, a Chinese worker died." It was not quite that bad but at least 600 Chinese workers perished in helping Sir John A. MacDonald fulfill his dream of uniting Canada coast to coast. At the time the western link of the CPR was completed most of the 2,900 Chinese rail workers had drifted back to the coast mostly to Victoria where an established Chinese community already existed.

Not all went west though; many headed east following the railway. By 1911 Calgary's Chinatown was home to 1,700. In all, that year, there were 28,000 Chinese spread across Canada, most of them working as cooks, laundry workers, domestic servants and any other job that didn't pose a threat to white male workers.

They may have appeared to be mostly bachelors but most had wives and families back in China. Our bigoted government saw to it that it stayed that way with the introduction of the Dominion Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 which imposed a $50 head tax on immigrants and severely limited their number. Not being needed anymore for the hard labor jobs the feds found it easy to continually raise this head tax till it reached $500 in 1903. No other immigrant group ever had to pay such a patently racist tax to enter Canada.
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The movement to full rights for the Chinese in Canada was a long time in coming. Saskatchewan gave full voting rights to its Chinese population in 1944 and B.C. opted to only give voting rights to those Chinese who had fought in the two World Wars. My aren't they a benevolent bunch. Thankfully civil libertarians, veterans and church, labour and business groups joined to demand an end to all legal discrimination. The Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947 finally restored their voting rights federally and B.C. followed suit provincially soon after.

The story of the Chinese coal miners on Vancouver Island and how Robert Dunsmuir exploited them has been thoroughly documented by Lynn Bowen in her book "Boss Whistle". It is a piece of B.C.'s not so romantic history everyone should know about. Here is a small excerpt from Lynne Bowen’s book Boss Whistle, “The boss whistle was silent when the Big Strike closed the mines, it bided its time and then sounded again defiantly as it called scabs to work in the place of union men. When the coal markets began to die, the boss whistle assumed even greater powers. Families listened each day for its voice, their livelihood depending on its message. One whistle- work tomorrow. Two whistles- another day without work. And when a retired miner stopped on the street to check his watch with the twelve noon whistle from the mine he was acknowledging the lifelong influence of the Boss Whistle.”

Author’s Note: The 3 men-or-more acknowledgement of coal miners lost in the Crowsnest Pass falls terribly short of the mark of proper recognition of every single miner lost here. With that in mind I have started the research to create databases of those lost at every mine within the Pass. Ultimately I hope to be able to bring them forward to where, like the Bellevue Mine, a commemorative plaque can be placed at an appropriate spot at each former mine site. I have begun my research with McGillivray Mine where 58 men were lost during its operational years. It is the right thing to do.
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February 24th, 2021 ~ Vol. 91 No. 8
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