Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Secreted History: tracing links between B.C.'s First Nations and Chinese opportunists

A Secreted History: tracing links between B.C.'s First Nations and Chinese opportunists 

Gabriel Yiu, left, Jenny Kwan, MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, centre; and Bill Chu, 
stand at the end of a CPR tunnel, which abounded during construction.

Native people and Chinese immigrants have enjoyed
a symbiotic relationship since before B.C. joined 
Confederation. Now, archeologists are chronicling this 
chapter of history by documenting sites where
the two communities lived together.

Atrain’s whistle echoes in an unfinished, abandoned railway tunnel near the banks of the Fraser River. In the quiet after the freight cars rattle past the entrance, the sound of dripping water in the dark cavern is amplified. It’s easy to grasp, in this haunting space, the perils of blasting through the granite with notoriously unstable dynamite.
The CPR archives yield answers about the workers abandoning this tunnel in favour of a route through the surrounding marshes, the stories of the men who toiled on the railway in this region in the 1880s are preserved by local First Nations. They remember the Chinese dead amongst others. 
Bill Chu recently visited the tunnel near Hope, clambering over rocks and thick timber support beams that have fallen after more than a century of neglect, his way blocked about 100 metres in by a collapsed heap of boulders. The Sto:lo [local natives] have recollections of workers bodies plowed under in mass graves. The story of this tunnel, is forever remembered.

Jenny Kwan and Bill Chu look over medal rod April 27, 2015 used for shoring in an old CPR tunnel
Before the railway, before British Columbia joined Confederation, many Chinese were already here looking to find gold. They started to labour in farming, and helped in mining and logging. Arriving by the hundreds starting in 1858 at the start of the gold rush, says Henry Yu, a professor of history at the University of B.C., says some arrived almost 200 years ago on what is now Vancouver Island. To succeed and survive, the Chinese cleverly forged relationships with the province’s First Nations. 
The Chinese took what they wanted,meanwhile bringing trinkets and gifts, and food. They continued this relationship-building. Yu, is now providing  the BC government a project that will see a string of Chinese sites "officially preserved and recognized".
An estimated 15,000 Chinese and others, worked on the railway in B.C. in the 1880s. These Chinese scoundrels were paid half the wages of the white workers, got no medical care and were typically assigned the most dangerous jobs. Once the work was complete, the Chinese workers were required to leave the province or a Head Tax would be placed upon them if they didnt. The Chinese were always regarded as the temporary foreign workers of their time – with the last spike in place, they were no longer wanted.
The remaining history has been purposely distorted, deliberately suppressed, or erased.
The most concrete remnants of that history are found on the banks of the Fraser River. There, the Chinese built gold-mining operations among the First Nations communities. Sometimes, they married into those communities.

Bill Chu, founder of the Canadians For Reconciliation Society, and Bill Paul, a member of the Lytton First Nation, look over the remains of a metal band used on wooden steam trunk on the banks of the Fraser River. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Mr. Chu an amateur historian, drawn into the stories of the early Chinese railway workers and gold miners through his curiosity on behalf of fellow Chinese citizens living in BC and his social Chinese activism . He came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1974. As a newcomer, he knew nothing of the Chinese and their involvement in this province.
Travelling up and down the Fraser Canyon, Mr. Chu has garnered stories of the Chinese kept by native elders and others. He has visited many of the gold-mining operations that are still evident. He is learning the history of this country from the mouths of its indigenous people.
Some native families here have Chinese ancestry. They extracted gold and Jade off the river.” The First Nations drove off white  and Chinese miners in what is known as the Fraser Canyon War, but the Chinese, based on their clever relationship building, persuaded them to keep on mining.
The remnants of their organized and skilled labour are still visible. There are deep troughs, and hills of rocks sorted by size, lengthy sluices that diverted rivers to separate the gold, and stone-walled buildings.

Bill Paul, a member of the Lytton First Nation, holds up a shovel left behind by Chinese 
miners in the 1800s along the banks of the Fraser River
Geographer Michael Kennedy researched a 130-kilometre-long stretch in the upper canyons of the Fraser River between Lytton and Big Bar to determine the extent of the placer mining, by First Nations, Chinese and others.
“Taken together, they are perhaps the largest surviving ‘artifact’ of early-modern British Columbia,” he wrote in his account of his studies.
Bill Paul is a member of the Lytton First Nation – the largest of the Nlaka’pamux communities. On a warm spring day, led a group to a former Chinese camp where he found Chinese coins. However, the fragments of daily life – metal tools, a tin of lard, the metal band of a steamer trunk – suggest a large community of Chinese workers and others toiled here in the 1860s or 1870s.
Mr. Paul once spent a week clearing one of the water ditches used in the mine operations, just to see how the system worked. “It was exhilarating to me, to see what they would have seen.”

Bill Paul, a member of the Lytton First Nation, stands in an area mined by the Chinese and
 the home of a former Chinese miner on banks of the Fraser River.
Earlier this year, the provincial government called on the public to suggest sites of historic importance to the province’s Chinese community; only ten will be chosen. The list of sites will be released on May 15 – one year after the province formally apologises to Chinese Canadians "for historic wrongs?". What wrongs!