A Temporary Line
by Geoffrey Ewen, Glendon College, York University
As with other immigrants, views on itinerant workers depended
largely on their national origin. Those from the British Isles, the United States
and much of Europe were for the most part considered desirable as settlers and
permanent residents, although a few critics did express concern about immigrant
workers from these countries. There were trade unionists who opposed assisted
immigration of the poor from Great Britain on the grounds that it added to an
already overcrowded labour market. Municipal authorities and inland immigration
agents complained that such impoverished immigrants required too much assistance
once in Canada. A small number of Canadian nationalists worried that Americans,
drawn to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example, might come to dominate
the Canadian West.
The recruitment of Chinese workers was controversial from
the start. Within British Columbia, groups as diverse as municipal officials,
law enforcers, journalists and Protestant clergy voiced opinions that revealed
more about their racial ideologies than they did about Chinese Canadians: critics
claimed that Chinese workers could not be assimilated, lived in unsanitary conditions,
gambled and smoked opium.
While opposition was expressed by people of every social
class, some industrialists and contractors -- in railway construction, mining
and salmon canning -- praised Chinese workers as reliable and hard-working. These
employers undoubtedly benefited from the availability of Chinese labour, since
they paid Chinese workers wages 30 to 50 percent lower than they paid other workers.
As well, some employers counted on cultural and linguistic differences to keep
their workers from organizing trade unions.
Organized labour, particularly in British Columbia, objected
to the low wages paid to Chinese workers, and asserted that they displaced white
workers. Trade unionists also complained that Chinese workers were used by employers
as strikebreakers. But since unions barred them from membership, Chinese workers
had no reason to sympathize with these organizations or to show solidarity when
they went on strike. It was only in the early 20th century that some unions, like
the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated the organization of all workers
regardless of race or national origin.