Frontier Violence In Early Alberta


When the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885, British Columbia was hit with a recession, leaving thousands of Chinese labourers unemployed and impoverished. While some had enough money to return to China, others took refuge in British Columbia’s few crowded Chinatowns, still others headed east towards Alberta in search of greater job opportunities. Instead of a better life, however, they were greeted with racial rage and mob attacks.

Early Chinese communities in Alberta
Althoughnumberingfewinthemid 1880s, more Chinese began arriving in Alberta by the early twentieth century. Whereas there were only 235 in 1901, by 1911 there were 1,787 Chinese in the province[20]. As their numbers grew, Chinatowns began emerging in southern Alberta, most notably in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. [21]


Early Occupations
Once in Alberta, these pioneers found ways to earn a living despite limited options. Many opened laundries, restaurants, grocery stores and market gardens. These businesses required minimal capital, just hard work and long hours. Eventually, Chinese micro-enterprises could be found scattered throughout the province. Those who did not go into business for themselves, often worked as cooks, houseboys or found employment in nearby cattle ranches. [22]

Anti-Chinese Movement on the Frontier
Regardless of their entrepreneurial drive and grit, Chinese pioneers faced incredible hardship and racism During the frontier years, many Albertans were influenced by a phenomenon known as the “Anti-Chinese Movement.” Originating in the United States in the late 1700s, this movement was the combination of many factors — including the vicious portrayal of Chinese by early American traders, scholars, missionaries and editors. It later intensified following the easy defeat of China by Britain during the Opium War (1840–1842) and Social Darwinism, which categorized Asians as racially inferior to Europeans. [23]

White labourers and unionists in British Columbia further stoked public disdain by accusing Chinese workers of taking jobs away from European Canadians. Early Canadian newspapers did even more damage by depicting the Chinese in extremely derogatory ways. Not surprisingly, few Albertan politicians or residents were sympathetic to the Chinese during these years. [24]

Frontier violence in Calgary
When the Chinese arrived in Alberta around 1885, there was a strong bias against them. Even when their presence was minimal, they were viewed with suspicion. In 1884, the Calgary Heraldreprinted an article from the Hamilton Spectator, which stated: “We do not want Chinamen in Canada. It is desirable that this country shall not be peopled by any servile race… the million who will soon people the great Prairies of the West shall be children of the Indo-Germanic parents… not the degenerate children of the Mongols.” [25]

One of the most violent anti-Chinese incidents occurred in Calgary in 1892. That year, a Chinese man fell ill with smallpox after visiting Vancouver several weeks earlier. To contain the disease, city officials burned the laundry where he lived and placed all occupants under armed quarantine. Despite precautions, nine people contracted the disease and three died. Two months later, when the occupants were released from quarantine, a mob of 300 tried to run the Chinese out of town. The rampage took hours to dispel and the Mounted Police were forced to parole the town for three weeks to prevent further violence. [26]


Frontier Violence in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat
Those Chinese who went to Lethbridge experienced similar treatment. After the Calgary smallpox riot, Lethbridge newspapers began calling the Chinese “plague-breeding celestials” and sided with the white rioters. In 1907 the Lethbridge Herald strongly urged the Alberta government to disenfranchise the Chinese as was being proposed in British Columbia: “Make these yellow men understand we are not going to allow them to secure any influence in our affairs. They have no right…to compete with white votes.” [27]

Later that year, a mob of 500 attacked Chinese businesses and residents following a rumour that a Chinese restaurant owner had killed an unruly white patron. The attack continued until the Mounted Police were brought in to stop the violence.

Although the press was more balanced in its portrayal of the Chinese in Medicine Hat than in other communities, anti-Chinese sentiment was still strong. In 1887, The Medicine Hat Times published a letter encouraging residents to treat the Chinese as “mad dogs” and throw them into the Saskatchewan River. [28]

Frontier Violence in Edmonton
Some of the first settlers to Edmonton were “refugees” escaping the violence and racial tensions in Calgary following the 1892 smallpox riot. They did not find the sanctuary they sought however. Instead, they were harassed by white residents, the police and in particular, the local press.

The Edmonton Bulletin stoked fears of the “Asian Menace” entering British Columbia and presumably heading east towards Alberta. Edmonton papers also printed racial slurs on a regular basis, often referring to the Chinese as “Chinks and Mongolians.” Other times they ran sensationalistic stories highlighting supposed Chinese vices like opium dens, gambling, and unsanitary habits.” [29]


Anti-Chinese Movement Softens
By 1910 the Anti-Chinese Movement had begun to loose some energy. Though early Chinese pioneers were still subject to discrimination and exclusionary laws, the intensity of frontier violence began to lessen[30]. It would be a mistake to conclude that the lives of Chinese pioneers became notably easier thereafter however.