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Chilliwack's Opium Dens

posted by: The Royal Hotel Chilliwack on: March 12, 2019 03:59:34 PM
In the late 1800’s many Chinese labourers arrived in western Canada to help build our country’s infrastructure. They were instrumental in the construction of our railways, toiled away in mines and basically did whatever was necessary to survive in their new home. They embraced jobs that white men rejected. They also used opium.

Opium Den (image credit: Narconon)

Opium was legal in Canada prior to 1907/1908. It was actually an ingredient found in many medications; including cough syrup intended for children and was commonly used for pain management.

image credit: Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee

The public’s growing resentment of the Chinese is thought to have spurred Future Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King when he pushed through the Opium Act in 1908 - which banned the sale, import or manufacture of opium for non-medicinal purposes. Some say Mackenzie King was motivated to bring this legislation forward not because of the public health issues associated with its use but as a racial reaction against the Chinese population. Some scholars also opine that Mackenzie King’s ban on opium was also an attempt to restrict Chinese immigration.

Chilliwack Progress, June 12, 1912

But opium use was not limited to the Chinese population. Many white men and woman also consumed opium and in fact by the late 1800s it was estimated that more than 60% of opium addicts were women. (Source: Frederick Heman Hubbard, from his 1881 book “The Opium Habit and Alcoholism”. 
Frederick Heman Hubbard  New York, A.S. Barnes & Co. [©1881]

Whatever the reason, the Opium Act was passed without debate.

[…] the amount [of opium] consumed in Canada, if know, would probably appall the ordinary citizen who is inclined to believe that the habit is confined to the Chinese, and by them indulged in only to a limited extent. The Chinese, with whom I conversed on the subject, assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as to Chinese, and that the habit of smoking opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls. [16]
From the Opium Act, 1908

Chilliwack Progress, August 26, 1896

Chilliwack’s opium dens were frequently raided by local police; the occurrences were often reported in the pages of the Chilliwack Progress.

Chilliwack Progress, July 20, 1922

Chilliwack Progress, June 19, 1919
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