Story by Candice Walsh
MOOSE JAW, SASKATCHEWAN — For me, the less glamorous side of Canadian history was completely ignored in my high school education. I had actually only heard about the tunnels of Moose Jaw a year ago and as I was driving across Canada this past May I decided to check it out.
Better known for its mineral spa, Moose Jaw, a 40-minute drive from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, was once a busy prairie town. The tunnels were originally used in the early 1900s as an underground heating network for the majority of the town’s large buildings. All the buildings were linked together, and the tunnels were completely accessible by man.
But things quickly changed.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in Canada in the mid-1800s to work on the railway, believing it was their ticket to a better life—one free of population pressures, poverty and politics. But they found themselves subject to discrimination and racism. They were literally forced underground, into the Moose Jaw tunnels, where they essentially worked as slave labourers. By the time conditions improved for the Chinese, a whole new ballgame had arisen: prohibition.
In the days when alcohol was outlawed in the US and parts of Canada, Moose Jaw was a hub for bootlegging illegal alcohol across the border, making use of the Soo Line and partnering with such notorious gangsters like Al Capone. Moose Jaw holds its little piece of Capone with pride: you’ll even see him mentioned on signs.
Nowadays, you’re introduced to the Tunnels of Moose Jaw via a few theatrical performances. The first is called The Chicago Connection, and is marketed as a light-hearted glimpse into the life of a bootlegger. All guides act in character and you’ll get to experience the “roaring twenties” in person. It sounds rather kitschy—and it maybe it is—but it also seems like great fun.
I flipped a coin and opted for the more sobering experience offered: Passage to Fortune. This tour profiles the lives of the Chinese as they were driven underground to work, especially in the laundry facility. You’ll wander through the tunnels, led by a guide, and see the cramped living quarters, unsanitary work conditions, and signs of the poor treatment the Chinese labourers suffered simply for a few pennies and a glimmer of hope for a brighter future. Seriously, bring tissues for this one.
And when I say these tours are theatrical I do mean theatrical: between narrating the scene as it would have appeared back when the labourers occupied the tunnels, the guide treats you as if you were an immigrant worker yourself. Sometimes you get yelled at. Sometimes you get called offensive terms. I thought it was a tad harsh, but the tour was fascinating nevertheless.
You might be skeptical about such an attraction as the Passage of Fortune; after all, aren’t we profiting from some pretty dire circumstances? But the tours are tastefully done, and there is no “sugar coating” the truth about the tunnels and their past.
It wasn’t until I exited the tunnels and walked through a hallway lined with photographs of the Chinese immigrants that emotion overcame me and I had to pause a few moments to quiet my mind. One image, of a father holding his baby daughter at the train station while donning a grin full of fatherly love, still sticks with me. We’re all inherently human, and the Tunnels of Moose Jaw remind us so.
I found the honesty impressive. Every country has their ghosts.
PLAN YOUR VISIT TO THE TUNNELS OF MOOSE JAW
Address: 18 Main Street North, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
Tickets: An adult ticket is $14 per tour; $23 to do both tours. To purchase tickets in advance, email the Tunnels of Moose Jaw.
Hours of operation: Monday-Friday, Noon-4:30 p.m.; Saturday, Noon-5:30 p.m.
MAP TO REACH THE TUNNELS OF MOOSE JAW