—— By Cameron Bridge/Nicola Valley Museum & Archives

Going back to the start of the 20th century, Merritt had a substantially large Chinese population. These people had come from China to escape from rampant poverty, famine, and general horrible economic conditions back in China.

They came to Canada and worked in a form of indentured servitude to build the railway, and after the last spike was driven in Revelstoke, they were laid off in mass. After this, while many did want to return to China, the economic conditions were still so poor that many still decided to stay and take their chances in Canada.

Many of these people came to Canada hoping to one day bring their families to Canada with them, but as time wore on the Head Tax continued to increase before finally in 1923, the Exclusion Act barred anymore immigration to Canada from China, cutting these men off from their families, many of whom they would never see again.

Farms and ranches require a large workforce to operate, and as a result many of the local ranches within the Nicola Valley hired Chinese workers at low rates from Kamloops and brought them here to the Nicola Valley.

There were a few main jobs that these Chinese workers tended to do, the first was being a cook. Many of the ranches employed Chinese cooks during the threshing and haying months, cooking meals in the fields for the rest of the expanded workforce.

These cooks would then usually become unemployed after these months were over. The second main job was to work as an irrigator. This was extremely hard work during the spring, where men would work long days digging and clearing trenches for the irrigation channels, only to be dismissed once the system was set up.

Ken Toy described these workers as being the poorest of the poor, these men worked for only $25 per month, approximately $300 per month today. Ken Toy noted that even with these poverty wages, they would still send money back to their families in China even if it meant they would starve.

With these periods of short employment on a very low wage followed by unemployment, a number of these Chinese men ended up becoming homeless.

During the Great Depression ‘relief’ was offered to the unemployed, however it did not extend to the Chinese unemployed as the City expected the Chinese population to look after itself. To their credit, they did what they could with what they had, for example, the original Yuen On Lung store was left standing by the Toy family to be used as a homeless shelter.

As Ken Toy described, the combination of heart break, hard labour, inadequate living space, and malnutrition resulted in many of these men dying at a young age.

Many were buried in Pineridge, but without headstones seeing as they did not have enough funds to provide for them.

The Chinese Benevolent Association, a Chinese Canadian non-profit that was started in the late 1800’s in Vancouver, raised money and decided to exhume many of these men and have their bones shipped to their native villages in China where they could be reinterred there.

We are unsure about how often this was done, but the article the headline “Bones of Chinese Are Exhumed To Be Shipped to China” is from notes that this had been done every 7 to 10 years.

The image included is a headline from the December 2, 1938 edition of the Merritt Herald.

The article noted that nine bodies have been exhumed, including the body of a recently deceased ranch cook, and that they have been cleaned and will be sent to China.

Most of the information for this post came from the quarterly “Profiles of Chinese Canadians in the Nicola Valley” largely written by Ken Toy in 1999.

The Nicola Valley Museum and Archives is open from Tuesday until Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., if you have any questions about the history of Merritt or the Nicola Valley please stop on by, give us a phone call, or send us an email.