Who were the driving forces behind the social and political change led by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters?
This dramatic monologue portrays Charles Ernest Russell, a Senior Porter who is sent a letter from the civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, to organize a Canadian chapter of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Performed by Derick Agyemang.
In Toronto and Ontario, the struggle by the Black porters to fight against the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the government for better treatment and equality was led by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). This gave them leadership of the progressive movement as the Canadian National Railway (CNR) porters had to concentrate on fighting their own union and the government, which was also their employer.
Leading figures in the formation and enduring efforts of the BSCP:
Stanley Grizzle, the head of the Toronto chapter of the BSCP, was a main driving force for social and political change. This allowed him to work with leading Black activists across North America and around the world. Grizzle took up the challenge of proving that the Canadian government did not have sound scientific evidence to back its claims that Black people could not survive in Canada as it was too cold for them. His work became the basis for porters and their allies to fight for the dismantling of Canada’s immigration system that had been based on a preference for Europeans. Grizzle and the porters recommended a change into the way Canada decided who could qualify as an immigrant. Most importantly they did not want Canada’s immigration policy to be based on race — favouring only white or European applicants. They advocated for Canada to give applicants points based on their qualifications — such as their level of education, work experience, whether they spoke English and/or French, and how easily they would fit into Canadian life. This method came to be known as Canada’s immigration points system under which anyone in any part of the world can apply to immigrate to Canada. It is still the basis for Canada’s current point system for immigration today, where the final decision to allow someone to immigrate to Canada is based on qualifications rather than on race.
Image 1: Letter from Asa Philip Randolph to Stanley Grizzle on the hiring of the first person of colour as sleeping car conductor (1955). R12294, Vol.21, File 3. Library and Archives Canada. Courtesy of Latanya, Sonya and Stanley Grizzle Jr.
Image 2: Letter from Stanley Grizzle to the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights regarding the Anti-Discrimination Commission Act. (1958). Library and Archives Canada. Courtesy of Latanya, Sonya and Stanley Grizzle Jr.
Asa Philip Randolph was the leader of the BSCP that started in 1925 in New York and spread across North America. Randolph was a leading civil rights figure in the United States and he was the main organizer for the historic 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Randolph developed a very close relationship with Stanley Grizzle and would stay at his home when making organizational trips to Toronto. Grizzle considered Randolph his mentor.
A.R. Blanchette was the main organizer in Canada for the BSCP. He was born in St. Kitts and followed his uncle John Arthur Robinson to Winnipeg where he was also an influential Baptist minister. In 1917, Robinson had tried to establish the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, a Black trade union, but his attempt was crushed and he lost his job at Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Blanchette followed in his uncle’s footsteps and eventually became one of the leading figures in the Canadian labour movement, particularly with the Canadian Labour Congress. As an international executive, much of his work was helping the BSCP to spread across Canada and to ensure that officials in the U.S. based BSCP headquarters fully supported the activism by porters in Canada.
Donald Moore’s first job in Canada was as a porter on CPR. After giving up that job, Moore became a leading spokesman for the Black community. In particular, he was sought out by the community on immigration matters. Moore led the fight for Black British subjects from the British Empire — particularly from the West Indies — to have the same rights to immigrate to Canada as white British subjects. This was one of the reasons that he formed the Negro Citizenship Association in 1951, which organized the 1954 delegation of porters and allies to Ottawa alongside the BSCP. In particular, Moore is associated with the efforts that led to the 1955 introduction of the West Indian Domestic Workers Scheme, under which Black women were recruited to work in Canada, ultimately leading to Canada adopting a more liberal immigration policy.