A Temporary Line
by Geoffrey Ewen, Glendon College, York University
For the most part, there were few restrictions on the
entry of workers into Canada. The federal government promoted immigration, both
as part of its land settlement policy and to encourage commercial and industrial
growth. It provided reduced passage fares for agricultural labourers and occasionally
extended this scheme to workers in other occupations when they were in demand.
It also promoted a program in which employers advanced the cost of travel and
then deducted the expense from the workers' pay. Government officials and immigration
agents expected that newly arrived immigrants would initially seek temporary work
wherever they could find it and that agricultural settlers would work for others
until they could establish their own farms.
On two occasions, however, the federal government took a position on the immigration
of a particular group of immigrant workers, namely the Chinese. The first occasion
was in response to the claim in the early 1880s by Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor
building the western leg of the Canadian Pacific Railway, that he could not get
enough workers to complete the project on time without recruiting Chinese contract
The federal government supported the entry of as many as 15,000 Chinese labourers between 1881 and 1884. Some were hired in the United States, but most came from the province of Guangdong in southern China. Once the rail line was completed in 1885, the Canadian government bowed to pressure from a range of groups in British
Columbia and passed the notorious Chinese Immigration Act that imposed a $50 entry tax on working-class Chinese immigrants, Canada's first barrier to
immigration based on national origin.