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The year 1858 marked the start of ongoing Chinese immigration to the regions of British North America that would later form the present-day Canada. In the east were the colonies of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, as well as the "United Province of Canada," including Quebec and Ontario. On the Pacific coast was the colony of Vancouver Island. At the time, none of these colonies had immigration restrictions. A vast area under the control of the Hudson's Bay Company lay between these eastern and western settlements. First Nations people were the main residents in that area, as well as in British Columbia.
The first wave of Chinese immigrants to arrive in Canada were motivated by various push and pull factors. Negative factors can "push" people to leave their home while positive influences "pull" people towards a particular country.
The push factors, such as floods and wars in China, made it hard for people to grow crops for food, live in safety and peace, or make a living.
Pull factors for Canada were related to the young nation's pace of growth. New settlements and new industries often had a shortage of workers. British Columbia's distance from Europe and eastern North America meant that China was the closest large source of low-cost labour.
Decisions on where to migrate were also shaped by other factors, such as the efforts of labour recruiters, and influence of family and village networks.
Most Chinese immigrants to Canada in the last half of the 19th century came from one small area near the southern port of Guangzhou, in China's Guangdong province. Of eight rural districts in that region, four had rich soil. In the other four districts, only 10 percent of the land was usable for growing food crops.
All eight districts were densely populated. Between 1780 and 1850, the population had jumped from 16 to 28 million people. Meanwhile, no new ways had been found to increase harvests in the region, so the land could not feed everyone.
The population growth led to a land shortage and higher rents for farmland. People without fields to grow crops had a hard time feeding themselves.
From time to time, farmers also faced natural disasters, such as floods and droughts.
The last half of the 19th century was also a difficult political time for China.
Poor living conditions led to a peasants' revolt in 1851. The Taiping Rebellion, which ended in 1864, claimed 20 million lives across the country. Other peasant wars in southern China claimed 150,000 lives between 1854 and 1868.
During these unstable years, farmers were dragged into armies, crops were ruined and bandit gangs raided villages. The central Chinese government could not maintain law and order in the region.
For many years, European countries had been moving into China to sell their products. After losing the Opium Wars to Great Britain in 1842 and in 1860, China was forced to open more of its port cities to trade with Europe. When trade moved to these newly opened ports, less cargo passed through the port of Guangzhou. The result was that porters, warehouse hands and boat crews lost their jobs.
After the Opium Wars, a condition of China's surrender was a massive payment to Great Britain, an amount which was one-third of the annual intake of China's treasury. This cost was passed on to the ordinary Chinese citizens who had to pay higher taxes.
Gold was discovered along the Fraser River in British Columbia in 1858. Thousands of miners, including many Chinese who had been working in California, rushed into the region. Great Britain quickly created the colony of British Columbia on the mainland, with its capital city at New Westminster, to prevent American miners from claiming that the land belonged to the United States.
The need for labour in British Columbia led to many Chinese being hired to build roads, clear land and construct railways. They also worked in coal mines and fish canneries and on farms.
Guangzhou, on the delta of the Pearl River that pours into the South China Sea, was the main port in southern China. Since the eighth century, it had served merchants who traded far and wide with other regions of China, Southeast Asia and even the Middle East. Ships also carried workers from southern China to find jobs in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as Guyana, South Africa, and Caribbean countries.
Long before North America's gold rushes in the 1850s, men from the Guangdong region of China knew about overseas work. While they were away, the clan (a network of related families) helped their wives and children who had been left behind. The men working abroad were expected to send money back to their families and clans waiting at home.
Merchants from southern China working in faraway cities or countries would set up clubs to help fellow traders. These groups provided shelter, business contacts and small loans. Such services made it easier for the southern Chinese to travel far away.
When Chinese people came to Canada, they set up similar groups to help one another.