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.
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.
- Cecil Foster’s web site
- Black Railway Porters – Myseum of Toronto (not a typo)
- History of Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation – Pier21
- Sleeping Car Porters in Canada – The Canadian Cyclopedia