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Work and Wages in British Columbia
An article from MacMillan's Magazine of 1906.

British Columbia has been frequently advertised as the paradise of the sportsman and of the capitalist, especially of such capitalists as choose to invest in mines. It is not the present writer’s business to press either of these contentions. It is true beyond all shadow of doubt that the hunting of big game, of considerable variety, rewarded by as much success as any genuine sportsman should desire, may be indulged in here at much less expense than in most other countries rich in wild animals, and with perfect immunity from malaria and other forms of ill health which spoil the amusement in South Africa, and to a certain extent in India. It is equally true that, now that British Columbia has passed the perilous time of her infancy as a mining country, there are a large number of low-grade mining-properties in the copper districts which can, thanks to the introduction of cheaper methods of treatment and greater facilities for transport, as well as to the early decease of a large portion of our wild-cat speculators, be made to pay men who understand their business and put trust in nobody but themselves. There are silver-lead properties in the Slocan, so rich in value that even the conditions which have prevailed could scarcely prevent their development; and there are undoubtedly bodies of gold gravel in the northern parts of British Columbia, rich perhaps as some of those in Cassiar, of which we skimmed the cream in the Seventies, but certainly rich enough to pay a handsome dividend upon capital judiciously invested in hydraulic operations.

But both capitalist and hunter may go wrong in British Columbia, and both from the same cause. Neither will succeed if he is not prepared to take care of himself. Agents, and all the paraphernalia by which idle men surround and protect themselves from trouble in the older countries, are practically valueless, I believe, in all colonies. The successes of the colonies are not for infants in arms, but for men who can take care of themselves. Therefore such infants are really of no more good to the new country than they are to themselves. They may fill some individual’s pocket, but their failure to fill their own does the country as much harm as it does themselves.

There is one class of man absolutely certain to better his condition by coming to British Columbia. . It is the class of man who can and will labour with his hands, and abstain from whiskey and politics. Want of labour and a plethora of politics are the curses of Western Canada. It is almost impossible, to find white labour with any experience for farm-work ; and, in spite of the intense prejudice against Chinese, and the recent legislation which, by putting a head-tax of £100 upon Chinamen, has decreased their number and raised their wages, most men are obliged to employ them, although it is generally admitted that Chinamen are of no use with horses, and that three Chinamen will not do more work than two average white men. The Japanese, against whom there is less prejudice and no valid legislation, do not much affect the question of farm-labour. They can work if they like to do so, but they do not like the work and will not stick to it. So soon as the fishing-season comes round, your Japanese will leave you, nor is there any means by which you can contract him out of his liberty to go when he likes. As the fishing-season and the harvest-time here are identical, it is not difficult to understand the disadvantage of employing Japanese labour. There is one other- class of labour, the native Indian labour of the country; but though Indians are excellent clearers of land, and in some cases good axe-men, they do not take kindly to any steady work, and are only useful occasionally in contract labour. Nature is too liberal, and the Indian too easily contented. With his spear and his trolling-line the native can catch all the fish he wants, and round the coast his gun and rifle supply him with as many ducks, deer, and so forth as suffice him for food.

The result of all this is that in the field of farm-labour an English farm-hand would have no class to compete against in British Columbia.

The writer is himself farming not far from the capital, and in two years has not been able to obtain a genuine farm-labourer who can plough and do such other things as most farm-labourers are supposed to do.

The wages paid run from $20 a month and board of the best, to $45 without board, for men who are not experts in any sense but simply competent (more frequently incompetent) farmhands, and the vacancies have to be filled by young English lads of the public-school class, whose will is excellent, but whose knowledge, as a rule, is very much less obvious. Of really cheap labour, the boy’s labour of stone-picking, fruit-gathering, tending stock, and such like, we have absolutely none in British Columbia. It all has to be done by adults, and paid for at the rates paid here to grown men. The working woman is an unknown person. It is doubtful whether a couple of dozen female cooks could be found in private houses in the capital of British Columbia, but that there is a demand for them is beyond question. Their wages would range from $18 a month upwards, and all that would be demanded of them would be such simple skill as produces well-cooked meats and apple-puddings in the old country. The farm-labourer with a wife who would cook for the house, and a couple of small boys who would make themselves useful about a farm, would be a godsend indeed, and might easily earn $50 a month and their board.

In The Year Book of British Columbia, a conscientiously compiled volume of statistics, we may read that—

Chinese are mainly employed throughout the province for farm-labour. They received from $10 to $20 a month. Last year a considerable number of white farm-labourers were employed and were paid from $20 to $30 a month with board. A large demand exists for skilled milkers, who are paid as high as $40 a month and board.

This is probably a general statement of averages and as such is no doubt accurate; but I have never been lucky enough to find a Chinese farm-hand who would work at $10 a month, and at present have to pay my cook and ploughman $20 a month each and board. Although bitterly opposed to Chinese labour as tending to fill the place of marrying, breeding white men who would form the nucleus of a population worthy of the province, I am obliged to employ them, or do the work of house and farm myself.

The only alternative to a Chinese cook is your own wife. The lady-help is a rank impostor ; she is too much lady and too little help. She puts her boots outside her door every night and wonders who cleans them ; she can play the piano moderately, but she knows nothing of making butter; and “the one thing she cannot do” includes all those things which she is wanted to do. As a practical man I say for heaven’s sake let her stop at home, unless she comes here expressly to be married; in which case, if she be good-looking, let her come.

Very nearly the same may be said of the gentleman-labourer. He is an expensive luxury, and although in time he may grow into a first-rate workman, it is better that he Should do so at some other man’s expense. Farm-pupils, who pay £100 per annum to be taught their business by being worked upon a bush-farm, may put a little money into the employer’s pocket if his wife is a good (or mean) housekeeper and he a good slave-driver; but a pupil who cuts your new harness to pieces to make it fit the wrong team has his drawbacks.

The people we want in this country are the old-fashioned general servants who can cook plainly, wash and scrub, and the farm-labourers who can do any ordinary job upon a mixed farm. For than the outlook is bright enough. At first the man should get his $18 to $20 a month and board all the year round ; and in this he would be better off than in many forms of labour in British Columbia which, though better paid, are apt to fail a man for a few months in the winter season. The woman should get about the same.

It is the boast of this province, a boast for which we pay somewhat heavily, that the working man is better treated here than elsewhere. He is too well treated for the prosperity of the province, since the free educational advantages of this country are out of all proportion to its income, and the taxes paid by the working man bear no relation whatever to the advantages he enjoys. Nor, if he be ambitious, is there any limit to the position to which he may climb. In one of the best farming districts of British Columbia, four of the best farms are owned by four brothers who came out as Welsh farm-labourers. Better fellows for the country you could not find, and it is well that one of them is in the local Parliament, the late premier of which was a working miner’s son.

One word in addition to people among whom the writer was brought up. They were then, and probably are still, sportsmen every one of them. As a land-owner I called them poachers, but if I had not been a land-owner I should have been a poacha myself. Excellent rough shooting and excellent. fishing are fra here to all; land, for those who save enough to be able to make a home for themselves, is reasonably cheap and plentiful, the necessaries of life are cheap, and the world is beginning to realise that the centre of enterprise and development is shifting westwards, and that the small things and small men of the Pacific coal are likely to grow more rapidly into great things and great met in the next fifty years than anywhere else on the world’s surface.

A British Columbian Colonist.

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