Track Changes

How black railway porters helped reshape a nation

Multiculturalism has often been presented as a kind of housewarming gift to new Canadians, who are only too happy to learn they can keep their faiths and customs upon moving in. For Canadians of colour, this gift has often been offered as more of a consolation prize in lieu of the full privileges of citizenship. But as Cecil Foster shows in his new book, generations of black porters have been instrumental in actually shaping the multicultural ideals for which Canada is known today.

A novelist, journalist, autobiographer, and academic, Foster has evolved into a major figure in black Canadian letters. His first novel, No Man in the House, from 1991, is a classic of black experience. In his non-fiction, Foster has dissected the myth of Canadian tolerance, born of our history as a haven for refugee slaves — exposing instead a past in which the English and French elites fought to create a white nation. He has consistently cast black Canadians as engaged political agents. A Place Called Heaven, for example, was published in 1996, at the height of separatist tensions. In it, Foster encouraged black Quebecers to sway the balance of power by throwing their support behind the Parti Québécois if it promised to meet their demands.

With They Call Me George, Foster chronicles the history of the black railway porters and shows how their long struggle against job discrimination helped broaden the very definition of “Canadian.”

In the nineteenth century, George Pullman ­pioneered what would become known as the Pullman Porter Service. He imagined a kind of luxury treatment for railway passengers, the kind they might have received at antebellum mansions. It was a vision quickly adopted by Canada’s railways.

“Porters had to be on their toes from the moment they arrived,” Foster writes. “Passengers were catered to from head to toe, down to the nightly polishing or blackening of their shoes and the pressing of their clothes.” Whether porters were turning down beds, cleaning toilets, or fetching drinks from the club car, they were expected to serve. “There was always the cord hanging by the berth attached to the bell. One pull and the porter would come running.”

Rarely did passengers learn their porters’ names. Instead, they would simply call out “George!” — just as they might call out “Boy!” in the deep South. The porters worked for low pay and depended on tips for a living. Still, the train offered one of the best jobs that even a well-­educated black Canadian man could hope for.

Shared frustration over working conditions broke out in earnest in 1909, when the Canadian Pacific Railway restricted black employees to the role of porter. The new rules kept black men from serving in the fancier, more lucrative parlour cars, for example. Ineligible for promotion, black porters also lacked job security: they even had to sign a statement to that effect, unlike all other railway employees. Their union at the time, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, sided with the railway, favouring white members at the expense of black ones. A battle against discriminatory practices ensued, with black porters playing a role in the twentieth-­century labour movement.

By not blocking Canadian Pacific’s two-tier workplace — where one group had opportunities to rise and the other had zero chance for advancement — the federal government introduced de facto segregation in Canada. This is counter to the narrative we like to tell ourselves: that of an enlightened northern nation slowly but steadily adjusting to the reality of racial diversity. In fact, the country took a step in the wrong direction.

Foster illustrates the point through an escaped slave who settled in Windsor. Eventually, the man landed a job as a porter, working his way up to yard engineer. Sixty years later, his grandson was hired as a porter too. But for him, there was no job security and no chance for promotion. Discussions about racism in Canada tend to focus on the dream deferred. Foster points out that discrimination carries with it a deep financial cost for black people, who exactly like whites must provide for their families, educate their children, access health care, and enjoy quality of life.

Little improved over the next several decades. Finally, black porters reached out to A. Philip Randolph, the renowned head of the international Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The ensuing drama is worthy of a Hollywood script: secret meetings, political intrigue, betrayals that resulted in lost jobs. Then, on May 18, 1945, the BSCP ratified its first contract with Canadian Pacific. Among the significant gains for black porters: they could now be promoted to conductor. What’s more, the BSCP represented a powerful base from which to launch successful campaigns for equality legislation ensuring equity in employment, services, and accommodation policies for all Canadians.

Foster relies heavily on the archival papers of Stanley Grizzle, president of the Toronto division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. His title nods to Grizzle’s own published account, Don’t Call Me George, a declaration that brings to mind Sidney Poitier’s line from The Heat of the Night: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” Like that brave character, Grizzle was a formidable advocate for his people, one of dozens of porters who belonged to the Negro Citizenship Association. He went on to become a citizenship judge, a fitting coda to his activism.

Virtually from its inception, Canada was a diverse place, with a population that included Europeans, black Loyalists and former slaves, Chinese rail workers, and First Nations. Before Confederation, some 50,000 black people lived in Canada. By 1867, the number had dropped to 20,000. It dropped even further, to 18,000, by the 1950s. The government suppressed the black population, in part, by rejecting immigrants from the West Indies, often colluding with island administrators to refuse them passports. Countless others were simply turned back at points of entry, officially “deemed unsuitable” for the cold climate. This foolishness would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so dire.

For decades, Canada desperately needed immigrants to grow its economy, and the desperation only grew following the Second World War. Even so, the government continued to reject applicants on the basis of race. Europeans — who weren’t concerned with their impact on other societies — argued that Canada required time to “absorb” large number of immigrants. Once again, black porters mobilized to fight a two-tier system. Along with the Negro Citizenship Association, the BSCP, and various other allies, men like Grizzle excoriated Canada’s immigration policies on the world stage. They pointed out that Canada was a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination based on race, and an embarrassed federal government finally had to change course. In 1955, prodded in large part by black porters, it launched the Domestic Scheme, which opened the country to black West Indian women willing to work as maids, nannies, or housekeepers for the opportunity to become Canadian.

Throughout They Call Me George, Foster demonstrates how battles like these reshaped notions and conditions of employment, immigration, and citizenship, and laid the very groundwork for a truly multiracial, multicultural nation. Blacks and other Canadians of colour are not merely the beneficiaries of multiculturalism; they are its architects.