The Canada we know today, would not look remotely the same without the transcontinental railway. When the final spike was nailed into the ground in British Columbia on November 7, 1885, Canada became connected from coast to coast, Atlantic to Pacific. The railway unlocked new levels of autonomy, economic prosperity, and national pride. It symbolized human achievement and what is possible when vision and determination cross paths. And while that narrative is noteworthy and that story has been stated, the tracks also tell a different tale; one of brutal labour practices and gross inequality based on class and race.
The railway was not only built on the backs of Chinese labourers, but once it became a service that moved products and people, trains chugged along with the unrelenting and underappreciated work of the Black railway porter. “Porters” as they were referred to, was a term given to describe men hired to work on the railway and in sleeping cars.
The employment of Black men as railway porters began in the United States in 1867 with The Pullman Palace Car Company. Started by American engineer and industrialist George Pullman, this luxury overnight travel service employed Black men to work as porters because they were a source of cheap and abundant labour.
For black men, it was one of a few labour opportunities they were afforded, and so there was little choice for them but to accept the limited, grueling, and often demeaning work that was available, which included working on the railroad.
The Pullman Palace Car Company expanded to Canada at the beginning of the 1900s, as did their hiring practices, and railway companies would become the largest employers of Black men in Canada. The job would require these men to leave their families for weeks at a time, and twenty-one hour workdays would become a regular occurrence. While their specific situations varied in terms of their task(s), the train car they worked on, or the place they called home, they were ultimately all subject to the same work environment and treatment.
Once they donned their uniform they were stripped of all that made them unique to their communities and loved ones. These railway porters were condescendingly referred to as “George” (as in George Pullman) or “Boy”. They were expected to be at the beck and call of passengers regardless of the time of day, or absurdity of the request. “We were babysitters, not only for little kids but for adults…. [S]omeone would get drunk on the train and many times you would have to stay up all night just to watch them so they wouldn’t aggravate somebody else.” adding “someone would get sick, you would have to attend to them” said Herb Carvey, a car porter during the 1950s (1).
And while the working conditions and treatment of railway porters didn’t cause the average citizen to bat an eye, the porters themselves felt differently. Where white porters got promotions, Black porters were denied. Where white porters could join unions, Black porters could not. These constant blockades proved frustrating, and in the 1920s Black porters in the United States decided to mobilize, forming their own union called the, “Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters” (BSCP). In the 1940s Canadian Black railways porters, with the guidance of their American peers followed suit, organizing BSCP unions across the country. In 1942, divisions were established in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. This effort led to a historic collective agreement with Canadian Pacific (CP) Rail, and long overdue rights such as increased wages and more time off.
Another “win” for these men was by reclaiming their identity, not just related to race, but their individuality. For them, a lot was in a name, and in 1945 porters received the right to get plaques in each train car that stated their name, an act that would hopefully reduce the pejorative references to them as “George” or “Boy”. This inequality was of course not unique to their experience, their struggle was shared by other Black and racialized peoples across Canada. The need to mobilize became more and more crucial, and car porters such as Toronto’s Stanley Grizzle, Donald W. Moore and others helped lead the charge.
In 1951 Donald W. Moore founded the Negro Citizenship Association (NCS) which were “dedicated to the promotion of a better Canadian citizen.” The association’s goal was to challenge the systemic inequalities that prevented the advancement of Black peoples in the workplace and society at large. Moore would also specifically advocate for Black West Indians and other individuals when it came to Canada’s discriminatory immigration policies.
While organized and determined, roadblocks still existed and Moore decided to take the fight for equality to the Canadian Government in Ottawa. On April 27 1954, Moore along with a delegation of representatives from various associations, unions, and organizations, including activists and some allies, boarded a train from Toronto to Ottawa. Their mission was to present a brief to Walter E. Harris, who was Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. “They had two broad aims: to challenge how Blackness and belonging was thought of in Canada, and to ensure that any benefits won by Black people were extended to all racialized groups,” says Cecil Foster, author of, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Canada’s Black Railway Porters.
In his book, Foster goes on to say, “Still, even if the meeting did not result in the immediate responses the delegation was hoping for, the fact that it happened at all was a major victory. It had been a long time coming and a long journey for both the delegates and Black people in general, and it was no small thing to be able to command the attention of a senior minister of government, even if only for a short while.” (2) That historic visit to our nation’s capital captured the attention of the public and media, and became a catalyst for change.
In 1955 George Garraway became the first Black train conductor hired by CN Rail, and by the late 1960s the Black train porters were able to make continued progress in not only their fight for equality, but for the equality of other racialized Canadians as well. And like the flickering coal which kept their trains moving forward, the tenacity of these railway porters did the same for the civil rights movement in Canada.
To this day the embers of their efforts still burn bright:
“The members and officials of the Negro Citizenship Association and the Toronto C.P.R. Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters will continue to fight unremittingly for the right of all peoples of this planet to enter Canada and become its citizens without penalty or reward because of their race, colour, religion, national origin or ancestry. Yes, we take the uncompromising position that what appears to be premeditated discrimination in Canada’s Immigration Laws and policy is utterly inconsistent with democratic principles and Christian ethics.” Stanley Grizzle, April 27, 1954
(1) North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880-1920
By Sarah-Jane (Saje) Mathieu
Labour/Le Travail, vol. 47, 2001, pp. 9–41.
(2) They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and The Birth of Modern Canada
By Cecil Foster
296 pages. Biblioasis.