History Slam Episode 139: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War

By Sean Graham

The outstanding Canada’s First World War series here at Activehistory.ca wrapped up on Friday after five years of producing exceptional content. As Jonathan Weier pointed out in one of the series’ post earlier this year, the historical focus on major narratives like Vimy that focus on nationalist mythology limits the discussion about the diverse experiences of Canadians during the war. Over the past few years, Remembrance Day has provided an opportunity for news outlets to produce stories on the people who have not been written about in a lot textbooks, but with 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders serving, 66,000 of whom died, there is no shortage of stories that have been lost in the last 100 years.

One story that may not qualify as having been ‘forgotten’ is that of Canada and the Chinese Labour Corps. The only reason forgotten may not apply is because very few people knew about it at the time as the federal government kept its involvement secret. Needing labour for behind the front lines, Great Britain recruiting Chinese men to go to Europe to support British forces. The safest route between China and the western front was through Canada, however, so over 80,000 men landed at William Head Quarantine Station on Vancouver Island and traveled across the country. This largely unknown chapter in Canada’s war experience is the subject of Dan Black’s new book Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War.

Once on the east coast, the men boarded ships that took them to France. Canadian involvement in the program and the men’s experiences in Canada offer a unique perspective on the First World War and the way in which certain stories are prioritized. Even now, the men who died as they crossed the country are just starting to be recognized by name at the locations where they were buried.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dan Black about his book. We talk about how he came to the story, why it hasn’t received a lot of attention, and the challenges of finding sources. We also chat about the men’s experiences in Canada, the government’s reasons for keeping it secret, and the acknowledging the diversity of Canada’s war experience.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca.

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