The untold story of Canada’s sleeping car porters revealed by author Cecil Foster

A black porter is featured on the cover of the book They Call Me George by Cecil Foster.

Some stories need to be told because they reveal something important about a person or a country.

The story of the black men who worked as porters on Canada’s passengers trains is such a history. The former journalist and educator Cecil Foster has brought their story to light in his book They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Making of Modern Canada (Biblioasis) that says much about the history of racism in Canada and the men who did much to change that. (By the way, George refers to George Pullman, the founder of the Pullman sleeping car company. The porters were often just called George without their real names being used.)

As a white man I knew little of the efforts of the porters and the union that they formed called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which was affiliated with the American union of the same name.

If you were a black man in Canada before the 1960s one of the only jobs really open to you was as a sleeping car porter. Our nation was a white nation in which people of colour were discriminated against.

Cecil Foster. Photo: Sharon Beckford

But if you were living in the Caribbean, say, you saw opportunity in the mythology of Canada and folks came seeking that opportunity only to be denied. So they took the only job on offer. On the trains they had no sleeping quarters and they could not eat with the passengers.

All of this is described in Foster’s book.

The idea of the history started in the 1990s when he was a transportation reporter for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business. Foster, who these days is a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo, said. The final push was a Canada 150 program which encouraged the telling of unknown or little known stories.

“I covered the airlines and the railroads. I was always fascinated by transportation,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“I was interested in the story that Canada was built by the railway, this ribbon of steel and all that, but nobody ever told the stories of the men who worked on the railroad. The more I dealt with that, the more I got to realize that there was a story to tell about the black men who worked on trains.

“When I was growing up in Barbados, some of the men used to leave the island every year and go to Canada to work on the railroad and work on the ships on the Great Lakes, some even went on steamships across the Atlantic. They were helping to build the economy and build the country.”

The Canada of the first half of the 20th century was a place where Sir Wilfrid Laurier could use the N word in the House of Commons during a debate. Laurier’s vision of Canada, which he believed would “fill the 20th century” was of a whites-only Canada.

Foster knows all about that quote and Laurier’s white supremacy.

“Laurier was of the same background and approach and perspective as Woodrow Wilson who was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. While Wilson shutting down the post office to blacks in the U.S., Laurier was doing the same sort of thing in Canada starting with the railroads.”

It was not always so, Foster said.

“There are people like Lord Simcoe. He actually wanted a multi-racial Canada, He wanted a Canada where black people were free, where he would not allow slavery. That led to the underground railroad where people would  leave slavery in U.S. and come to Canada.” Many of who settled in southwestern Ontario.

But that welcoming posture changed during and after the American Civil War, Foster said.

“A lot of the Canadian elite supported the South. That is about the time that we had Confederation. The elites in Canada became very racist and that continued really until the passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights by John Diefenbaker’s government.”

Foster says Diefenbaker was one of the major figures in the history of Canadian race relations. His work was cemented by Pierre Trudeau in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But change would not have happened without the porters.

Ironically, they knew more of Canada than most Canadians.

“They went across the country. They knew all the sight-seeing spots. They always had to be ready to answer when someone would come to them and say ‘Porter, where are are we?’ They would have say you are approaching Kamloops and you will be there at such and such a time. They had to know where the train was.”

In 1954, a delegation of black community leaders, which included a large number of porters, went to Ottawa to meet with the minister of the day to urge him to change immigration policy. Both Canada and the U.S. were seized by the cause of civil rights. We just seem to know a lot less about our Canadian story.

In the U.S., the very next year Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Beforehand, in 1946, Viola Desmond became a lightning rod for change because she refused to leave a whites-only area of a movie house in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

In 1963, the head of the American sleeping car porters Philip Randolph was introducing Martin Luther King who would deliver the famous I Have A Dream speech during the March on Washington.

In Canada, Stan Grizzle, who was a leading figure in the Canadian union, was very much an acolyte of Randolph. Grizzle would go on to eventually be appointed as a citizenship judge after a distinguished career.

He said this in 1954: “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.”

Of such integrity, social change can sometimes come.

Foster hopes the story will be received positively.

“I like to think of the book as an unromanticized version of a perspective on Canada, one where we look at Canada, warts and all, and see that a few good men and women stood up and fought against great odds. And at some point better things happened.

“Those who are in the trenches today fighting for the great ideals, I hope that they would learn from the lessons of the porters and they would continue to fight.

“In a generation or two we need to be mindful that people won’t be looking back at us and saying how uncouth we were. I hope that is a good message.”

The book does hear from porters about their lives and their times. Foster is glad he was able to speak to some because the “hardest part (of his research) was finding enough of the porters who were still alive and well enough in health to be able to speak. I am glad to get the book out now before more of them have moved on” including his friend Sam Grizzle.

Foster says he believes we have built a better society today, but “there is still a lot of heavy lifting to deal with. We still haven’t had a non-white PM. We still have inequalities based on ethnicity and race. We haven’t arrived in a perfect society.

“And we have to be grateful that those guys had the foresight and strength to go out and battle for a better country.”

In Town: Cecil Foster, the author of They Call Me George (Biblioasis) will be at Library and Archives, 395 Wellington Feb.19 at 7:30 p.m. to mark the launch of his book. More information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.