On July 12, 1881, a confrontation occurred between two archetypes of the Canadian west. On one side, Officer Jack Kirkup, the “mountain sheriff” of the Cariboo range, profiled by Harper’s Monthly in 1891 as a legendary enforcer of the frontier. This six-foot, 300-pound “superb example of manhood,” with the “symmetry of an Apollo,” a man who could single-handedly maintain order in a riffraff-ridden area the size of Rhode Island, 1 had come to enforce a $3 poll tax. Facing him, an anonymous group of coolies, newly arrived from China, laboring for a pittance on the Canadian Pacific Railway, friendless and powerless. What happened next was not the stuff of legend: the coolies sent Kirkup ignominiously packing. Two months earlier they had rioted against excessive deductions and short rations by their employer, but on that occasion two policemen restored order. The tax revolt was more serious: it took five months and armed men “in battle array” to extract the taxes. For the citizens of British Columbia, this was no isolated episode: they had complained for years that the Chinese in BC refused to pay their taxes. [End Page 354]
The uprising of July 1881 both reflects and belies the usual stories told about the Chinese in British Columbia. Historians have very ably documented the extraordinary degree of anti-Asian sentiment that characterized public discourse in British Columbia from its earliest days. From 1858, BC was an important destination for Chinese immigrants and a profoundly hostile one. That year, news of a gold rush in the interior of British Columbia attracted thousands of miners, many of whom came up the coast from California. The first Chinese immigrants from California arrived in Victoria in June 1848; by the early 1860s, about five thousand Chinese immigrants had come from the United States, and from China, where demographic pressures, dearth, and the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 to 1864 provoked a large out-migration. 2 Colonial officials welcomed the influx of people and money into the region, but they worried that such an international population threatened British loyalties. Girded by mountains, ocean, and Americans to the north and south, the region was only precariously connected either to Britain or to Canada, at least until the advent of transcontinental transportation. Locals worried intensely about their fraught and fragile British identity, and the presence of Chinese immigrants only added to their sense of insecurity. Elemental principles of British Columbia’s political culture emerged from that keen sense of insecurity, persisting long after Confederation with Canada. Inhabitants of eastern Canada, where Chinese immigrants were a rarity, observed BC’s anti-Asian panic with bemusement. 3
Historians agree that the leading ground for hostility to the Chinese in British Columbia was economic competition. Chinese immigrants earned lower wages than “white” laborers, who intensely resented the competition. Large-scale employers in British Columbia eagerly sought Chinese immigrants because they could pay them so much less: $1 per day for mining work, for example: one-third the amount that white miners earned, half what indigenous miners earned. The critique of Chinese labor began in earnest when Robert Dunsmuir used Chinese labor to break a coal miner’s strike in 1877, and it gained momentum in the 1880s as thousands more Chinese entered Canada to labor on the transcontinental railroad. Labor journalists used Chinese examples, drawn from around the world, to denounce capitalism and “wage slavery.” Capitalists tend to exploit the most vulnerable workers the most ruthlessly and the Chinese were vulnerable. The economic rationality behind anti-Chinese sentiment also found expression in union hostility to other low-wage labor, including women and Eastern European workers.
But hostility toward the Chinese was markedly greater, even qualitatively different. It continues to puzzle scholars. It characterized even the most [End Page 355] egalitarian labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, and it was espoused even by labor activists who scorned all other racialized discourses, including the antiblack sentiment that widely characterized working-class opinion in the United States. There, David Roediger has argued, drawing on the models of working-class culture first...