A Temporary Line
by Geoffrey Ewen, Glendon College, York University
Migrant workers in Canada faced a labour market in which
a person's language, national origin and race determined their access to work.
Canadian-born white workers and those from Great Britain, the United States and
some parts of Europe had greater chances of getting skilled jobs. Workers belonging
to visible minorities competed for more exploitative work with lower pay and more
dangerous working conditions.
Italian workers who faced poverty in the agricultural economies of their hometowns had a tradition of migrating to other parts of Europe for work, well before North America became a popular destination. The choice to seek temporary employment abroad was often made as a family decision, sometimes with borrowed money, and the wages earned were frequently sent home to a trusted relative or fiancée. Some Italian sojourners, who were generally men, worked overseas temporarily before making the decision to settle permanently. As Bruno Ramirez has explained, what made the trip worthwhile, despite isolated work camps, hardships and dangers, was the desire to pay debts, buy land, build a house or provide a dowry for a daughter or sister. When the men returned to their home villages, their information about work and wages prompted others to follow and repeat the process themselves.
Chinese workers, who also came because of a desperately
poor economy at home, might likewise have made the decision to sojourn in Canada as
part of a family strategy, sending wages back to China and hoping for a prosperous
retirement there. The evidence suggests that many had a difficult time achieving
their expectations, as success depended on the cost of travel, the wages earned,
the opportunities for work and the attitudes in the host society. The low wages
paid by the Canadian Pacific Railway were further reduced when money for travel
and living expenses in the work camps were deducted. Many Chinese workers who
had toiled for years to complete the railway were left destitute, unemployed and
without money for the return passage.
Depending on the generosity of a few Chinese merchants,
Chinese workers stranded in Canada worked for low wages in a hostile society that
imposed restrictions on further Chinese immigration, denied them civil and political
rights, and restricted their access to numerous areas of employment. Despite this
harsh treatment, many built a life here, sometimes opting for self-employment
in small business ventures that reduced contact with racist supervisors and co-workers.
The entry tax imposed by the government and the general social hostility meant
that very few Chinese immigrants brought their wives and families to Canada. Many
more married and maintained their families in China, living most of their lives
in what has been called a married-bachelor society, since there were so many more
Chinese-Canadian men than women.