It was a unique chapter in Canadian history. The age of rail travel blossomed in the 20th century, and along with it a need for workers aboard the trains to help the passengers, particularly those in the sleeping cars.
They were almost exclusively black, and later helped change Canadian immigration law, and by extension, the shape of modern Canada
A new book tells their story
Cecil Foster (PhD) is the author. He is currently a professor and Chair of the Department of Transnational Studies at the University at Buffalo, New York.Listen
The full title of the book is entitled “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada”.
For black men in Canada one of the limited number of jobs available to them was aboard the railways as sleeping car porters. Regardless of their real names, they were usually just called “George” after the creator of the sleeping cars where passengers were served, George Pullman, a form of depersonalisation even subtle disrespect.
The idea of black porters began in the U.S, in the late 1860’s with the creation of sleeping cars, and was later adopted by the Canadian railways.
The railway job was both good and bad, good in that it was steady employment and enabled a man to provide a decent life for his family, bad because it was a hard life with long hours, not a lot of respect, long periods away from family, and with no chance of advancement.
The father of world famous Canadian pianist, Oscar Peterson, was a railway porter. They were responsible for making sure the passengers were comfortable, and especially that they didn’t miss their station. That was one of the mistakes that could cost them their jobs.
They later fought back by first forming their own union, and then against immigration discrimination. They were eventually successful in changing immigration law, which Cecil Foster says, has led us to the Canada we have today.
Foster says it’s a chapter in history that we know little about and the book hopes to change that and recognise this important contribution to Canada.