Canada Day and Railway Porters

I hope all Canadians enjoyed their Canada Day in this unprecedented year. Between the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter protests, the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests and allied rail blockades… it’s been turbulent. I don’t think the latter half of the year will be all sunshine and rainbows, either. But we’ll get through it. We are Canadians, strong and free.

Today, on Canada Day, I finished reading “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada” by Cecil Foster. What a book.

I was first interested in this book because of the railway porter angle. I thought it would talk about the history of train porters.

Porters attended people on sleeping cars. They would assist passengers on and off the train, maintain sleeping cabins, load and unload luggage, change linens, clean the floors, bathrooms, and a myriad of other tasks. In other countries they might be called attendants or stewards.

This book does talk about train porters, yes, but that’s not what the book is about.

I’ll talk about the actual porter job, first, and then get into the larger theme of the book.

Porters in Canada

Until quite recently, a Black person coming to Canada had very limited work options. They were generally steered to work on the railway as a porter, or on ships. The idea of a Black person being a doctor, a professor, or really any professional at all was essentially unheard of in Canada until later in the 20th century. A porter was about the best occupation available for Black men.

The Pullman Company of the US supplied and operated sleeping cars for American and Canadian railroads. They used Black men exclusively for porters, as a large non-unionized work force. At one time they were the largest employer of African Americans in the US. As the Pullman Company declined, the passenger services were taken over by CN and the CPR in Canada but the Black porters remained.

There were numerous ways the porters were taken advantage of by the railroads. For example, their pay only started when the train departed its home terminal, yet the porters were required to start work hours before departure to prepare their train car. When their car didn’t have any passengers, they were required to accompany it yet were not paid. Senior porters could be designated porters-in-charge when a conductor wasn’t available, yet porters could never advance to be conductors, because conductors were always white.

The porters initially unionized in 1917 and in 1939 they joined the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This union eventually managed to improve working conditions. The porters then had to overcome resistance from the larger “running trades” unions to allow non-white members into their unions.

These victories came late for the porters, unfortunately, as working conditions improved just as rail passenger travel was plummeting in the 1960s and the need for porters was drastically reduced.

The larger issue, though, was treatment of Blacks and other people of colour by Canada in general.

Immigration and Opportunities

This book is really about the opportunities for Blacks and other non-white people to immigrate to Canada and to be treated equally. The railway porters in Canada were right at the front of the fight to push for equality and fair treatment.

Canada was a pretty “white” country until quite recently. The immigration laws of the early 20th century, especially the 1910 Immigration Act, pretty much prohibited anyone who wasn’t a white northern European from emigrating to Canada.

In theory, anyone from the British Empire could emigrate to Canada but in practice non whites were routinely denied. There was a specific clause “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada” that was used to deny Black people entry as it was considered that they wouldn’t prosper in the cold weather.

The porters teamed up with other activists throughout North America, including A. Philip Randolph, the organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, to improve opportunities for all races to move to Canada and to work in this country. In 1954, a delegation composed of many organizations, including the porters, traveled by train from Toronto to Ottawa and met with the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

The untiring efforts of the porters and their allies led to significant changes in Canadian citizenship, immigration and labour rules such as the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1953.

The Immigration Act of 1976 removed the “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada” of the 1910 Act and replaced it with a merit-based system that took into account how the potential immigrant could benefit Canada and meet its needs. I am not an immigration expert by any means but the general consensus is that it was a much fairer method.

My Canada

As a white man born in Canada, I’ve enjoyed all of the benefits and privileges of being a Canadian with none of the discrimination and limited opportunities that the railway porters had to face.

The history I was taught growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s really glossed over any mention of civil rights in Canada. There was certainly nothing about residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop”, or racist immigration laws and practices. Even when I was going through grades 8-10 in the Halifax area, I never learned about the destruction of Africville in the late 1960s.

I could sum up my Canadian history lessons in a few sentences. Europeans came to Canada and made friends with the natives. We fought the War of 1812 with the Americans. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built to unite the country. The west was settled in the early 20th century. Canada is multicultural. We rock!

The reality is far more complex, and far less comforting.

I think books like They Call Me George are important to tell us the things that our education system doesn’t. They are important to give us perspectives other than what has been approved by our education committees. We need to seek out new voices, to expose ourselves to different cultures in and out of our country, to really try to understand how others feel in this great country. Only then will we truly be multicultural.

Just One More Thing

I’ll leave you with a few links to resources about Black railway porters.

10 thoughts on “Canada Day and Railway Porters”

  1. If you’re interested in this topic, also check out Sarah-Jane Mathieu, North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Lots more on porters here!

  2. Thanks for this review. Glad you got into the discrimination that occurred in sleeping car business. Interesting that I never saw anything to this depth of explanation about conditions of employment in the bible of North American railways – “Trains”. I guess it was always too “sensitive” a topic for the US. I have been fortunate to have travelled in sleeping cars in Canada many times. Sleeping in upper and lower berths, and even a compartment once. Last time was trip from Montreal to Halifax in Renaissance cars – not half as comfortable as the old Pullman upper and lower berths. I will check out the book.

    • Hi Jim, I have never slept in a moving sleeping car… but I have slept in one at the New Brunswick Railway Museum years ago. It was pretty comfortable!

      • Nothing like sleeping in a moving train! My first experience was as a high school cadet travelling by CPR from London, ON to Banff, AB. I remember waking and looking out on rocks trees and water in Northern Ontario, the next day I knew I was in the west, in Pool, Sask. I later realized there were many Pools in Sask. I have the book now but yetto read it!

  3. A great article Steve! I will look for the book.

    I do agree with your assessment on learning more about our history through books like this, or through other methods to get educated on matters the schools seemed to have glossed over. I have listened to several podcasts on the CBC talking about the 60’s scoop and even slavery in the Maritimes. Difficult topics, but they need to be discussed and put out in the public relm.

    • We have to take charge of our own continuing education. Learning should be a life long thing, not something forced on us at school. I hope that everyone wants to continue to learn, even about painful truths.

  4. Not sure about your experience in N.S. but when I was in 7-9, they were just introducing Canadian history as the main part of Social Studies. Our School’s classroom still had the retired British history texts on the shelves. In grade 11 history, we worked off of galley proofs of one of the texts the Dept of Ed was evaluating for replacement of the old text. Between different textbooks, time constraints, and omissions accidental and deliberate, we can’t possibly learn everything. The world keeps changing – don’t stop learning.

    The general impression I got from the Pullman porter days was that life in the south was so bad for blacks, that working for a pittance out of Chicago seemed generous. I’ve read contemporary quotes touting said “generosity”.

    • Hi Rick, I think it was called “Canadian Studies” at Dartmouth High School in my grade 10. Maybe I just didn’t pay attention – it was my lowest grade of the year – but I think it was mostly British references for material.

      I agree that working as a porter seems like it was one of the best jobs available for Black men at the time. They were kept from applying for so many other jobs.


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