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Sleeping Car Porters in Canada

Sleeping car porters were railway employees who attended to passengers aboard sleeping cars. Porters were responsible for passengers’ needs throughout a train trip, including carrying luggage, setting up beds, pressing clothes and shining shoes, and serving food and beverages, among other services. The vast majority of sleeping car porters were Black men and the position was one of only a few job opportunities available to Black men in Canada. While the position carried respect and prestige for Black men in their communities, the work demanded long hours for little pay. Porters could be fired suddenly and were often subjected to racist treatment. Black Canadian porters formed the first Black railway union in North America (1917) and became members of the larger Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1939. Both unions combatted racism and the many challenges that porters experienced on the job.

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Chinese Canadians

Chinese Canadians are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. In the 2016 census, 1.8 million people reported being of Chinese origin. Despite their importance to the Canadian economy, including the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), many European Canadians were historically hostile to Chinese immigration. A prohibitive head tax restricted Chinese immigration to Canada from 1885 to 1923. From 1923 to 1947, the Chinese were excluded altogether from immigrating to Canada.

Since 1900, Chinese Canadians have settled primarily in urban areas, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto. They have contributed to every aspect of Canadian society, from literature to sports, politics to civil rights, film to music, business to philanthropy, and education to religion.

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British Columbia and Confederation

The colony of British Columbia was founded in 1858 in response to the Fraser River Gold Rush. (See also The Fraser River Gold Rush and the Founding of British Columbia.) The colony established representative government in 1864 and merged with the colony of Vancouver Island in 1866. In May 1868, Amor De Cosmos formed the Confederation League to bring responsible government to BC and to join Confederation. In September 1868, the Confederation League passed 37 resolutions outlining the terms for a union with the Dominion of Canada. The terms were passed by both the BC assembly and the federal Parliament in 1871. The colony joined Canada as the country’s sixth province on 20 July 1871. The threat of American annexation, embodied by the Alaska purchase of 1867, and the promise of a railway linking BC to the rest of Canada, were decisive factors.

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Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster

In the early morning of 6 July 2013, a runaway train hauling 72 tankers filled with crude oil derailed as it approached the centre of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The tanker cars exploded and the oil caught fire, killing 47 people and destroying many buildings and other infrastructure in the town centre. The fourth deadliest railway disaster in Canadian history, the derailment led to changes in rail transport safety rules as well as legal action against the company and employees involved in the incident. Years after the derailment, re-building was still ongoing and many of the town’s residents continued to suffer from post-traumatic stress.

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Chinese Head Tax in Canada

The Chinese head tax was enacted to restrict immigration after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Between 1885 and 1923, Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax to enter Canada. The tax was levied under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885). It was the first legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic background. With few exceptions, Chinese people had to pay at least $50 to come to Canada. The tax was later raised to $100, then to $500. During the 38 years the tax was in effect, around 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax. The head tax was removed with the passing of the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. Also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, it banned all Chinese immigrants until its repeal in 1947. In 2006, the federal government apologized for the head tax and its other racist immigration policies targeting Chinese people.

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Manitoba and Confederation

Canada’s fifth province, Manitoba entered Confederation with the passing of the Manitoba Acton 12 May 1870. The AssiniboineDakotaCree and Dene peoples had occupied the land for up to 15,000 years. Since 1670, it was part of Rupert’s Landand was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Canadian government purchased Rupert’s Land at the behest of William McDougall, Manitoba’s Father of Confederation. No residents of the area were consulted about the transfer; in response, Louis Rieland the Métis led the Red River Rebellion. It resulted in an agreement to join Confederation. Ottawa agreed to help fund the new provincial government, give roughly 1.4 million acres of land to the Métis, and grant the province four seats in Parliament. However, Canada mismanaged its promise to guarantee the Métis their land rights. The resulting North-West Rebellion in 1885 led to the execution of Riel. The creation of Manitoba — which, unlike the first four provinces, did not control its natural resources — revealed Ottawa’s desire to control western development.