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PENINSULA ZOOMER: Search for Shakespeare reveals past wrongs

Othello Tunnels walk leads to conversation about Canada’s poor history on immigration

‘I kissed thee ere I killed thee – no way but this, killing myself to die upon a kiss.’

Those are the words of one of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, Othello, consumed by jealousy, just before he kills himself.

I often wondered why there are road signs on the Coquihalla highway with names from this play, including Othello and Iago as well as other Shakespearean characters.

There was only one way to find out, so I took a little road trip to the Othello tunnels after a brief stop in Hope at a café that features homemade sour cherry pie. Delicious.

Sated, I set off on my mini adventure.

The Othello Tunnels are a series of old train tunnels and bridges that cut through solid granite walls and pass over the wild Coquihalla River. The tunnels are located just east of Hope in Coquihalla Provincial Park.

In the early 1900s, the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to connect the southern coast of British Columbia with the Kootenays and it was determined the best option was a route through the Coquihalla gorge. Today, the route no longer has railway tracks and has been restored as part of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) Trail, a popular cycling route that follows the old train routes over trestles and through tunnels.

From 1913 to 1916, under the leadership of chief engineer Andrew McCulloch, who was a lover of all things Shakespearean, this most difficult section of the KVR was built at an average cost of $136,000 per mile of track. The war effort created steel and labour shortages, increasing the cost of construction.

“No worries,” you may be thinking – they could just hire the Chinese immigrants who built our national railroad that united our vast country.

You would be wrong in thinking that.

Due to Canada’s deplorable immigration policy, Chinese labourers were forbidden to work on the project.

The Chinese head tax was enacted to restrict immigration after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Between 1885 and 1923, these immigrants had to pay a head tax to enter Canada. The tax was levied under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885). It was the first legislation in Canadian history to exclude immigration on the basis of ethnic background.

It wasn’t lost on me that of the hundreds of visitors I saw that afternoon, many were of Asian descent. I wonder if they were aware of the aforementioned racist policies.

Over a century later, we have witnessed this anti-Chinese racism again, as it has reared its ugly head during this endless pandemic.

As if this troubling history isn’t enough, I am then visually assaulted by graffiti scrawled on the information board which reads “Say No to the vax. It will kill you.”

Some say Othello’s tragic flaw was jealousy, which flared at suspicion towards his unfaithful wife Desdemona (who wasn’t unfaithful at all) and he rushed into action unchecked by calm common sense.

In the case of the moronic anti-vaxxer who defaced public property, it wasn’t lack of common sense which motivated him, but rather, blatant stupidity and ignorance.

He has the right to his opinion, no matter how misguided it is, but doesn’t have the right to vandalize and to push his agenda into my face as I am trying to enjoy the beauty of my majestic surroundings.

He is likely thinking he is grateful to live in Canada where his selfish behaviour might result in him contracting COVID-19 but still getting the care he will require in an ICU to save his sorry, self-centered self.

Shame on him.

Even Othello would agree.

April Lewis is the local communications director for CARP, a national group committed to a ‘New Vision of Aging for Canada.’ She writes monthly.