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Railroad Labour

Between 1900 and 1918 over 20,000 miles of railways were laid down in Canada. In Alberta alone 4,657 miles were built between 1900 and 1930. Working conditions on the railroads were deplorable. In 1912 a foreign consul, with personal knowledge of conditions in Europe and South America, stated that he knew "of no other country where the rights of workmen have been so flagrantly abused as on railway construction in Canada." According to official statistics, 3,667 employees were killed on railroad construction and another 41,272 were injured, between 1901 and 1918 in Canada. Through these years most issues of Ukrainian-Canadian newspapers carried news items about Ukrainian immigrants who had been killed on railroad construction.

Those who worked as navvies had to endure intolerable working conditions and irregular, exploitative wages. The average working day lasted 10 to 12 hours at 15¢ to 20¢ an hour, although it was not unusual for navies to work 16, 18 and even 20 hours a day when a contract had to be completed. Most navies earned $1.75 to $2 daily, except when inclement weather prevented work. In the summer their diet could consist of little more than half raw, inedible bread, beans and hard cheese since their meat supply frequently rotted while in transit or storage. It should also be noted that $4.50 was deducted weekly for food and lodging and an additional $1.25 was deducted monthly for medical services which were rarely provided. When one considers that most navvies were already indebted before they stated working, as a result of advances given to them for transportation fare to the construction site and for the purchase of proper clothing and equipment, it becomes obvious that even after three or four months of work many navvies were left with almost no net wages. After nine months of work and travel in search of work, many navvies had less than $200 to show for their efforts.

Ukrainian settlers performed a variety of tasks on railroad construction. They were "put to work removing old ties from the railroad and replacing them with new ones. In a day's work a man was expected to replace 20 ties and nail the rails down with four spikes on each end of the new tie." They worked in city railroad yard changing rails to a heavier gauge or helping to level the yard and lay tracks. They helped expand mountain tunnels by hauling and dumping gravel, they formed advance parties clearing bush for wagon trails, and they worked with shovels, grub-hoes and barrows building road-beds on which track was to be laid.

From Martynowych, Orest T. The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East Central Alberta, 1890-1930: A History. Occasional Paper No. 10, 1985 (1990).

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.