The Black Train Porters Who Led the Fight Against Canada’s Racist Immigration System

In the early 1900s, Canada only allowed 100 Black immigrants to enter the country each year. How did we evolve from bigoted policies to a more multicultural nation within a few decades?

Black and white photo of train porters.
Porter Percy Corbin, right, and steward Wilfred Notley at Ottawa's Union Station. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board

Few noticed when the Canadian Pacific Rail passenger train with a specially chartered sleeping car arrived at Ottawa’s Union Station on the evening of April 26, 1954. Spring was in the air after a cold Canadian winter, and the change of season was bringing important transformations to every part of the country. Major Canadian newspapers were filled with advertisements for the latest summer wear, travel extravaganzas, luxury automobiles, technologically advanced stoves and fridges, as well as tips for gardens, which were about to bloom.

Only five years earlier, the country had taken a firm step toward its founding destiny: it had gathered all the white British dominions in the Atlantic under one flag with the relatively painless absorption of Newfoundland into Confederation. Canada was now a player on the world stage. At home, everything indicated the good life could only get better. Unemployment was hovering in the range of 2 to 4.6 percent annually, about the same as in the United States, and would remain at these levels for the next two decades. With a gross national product of about $8,000 per Canadian, the country easily ranked in the top ten of world economies. With a rising standard of living, Canada was an ideal place to live by just about any measure.

The railways—which had been counted on from the beginning of Confederation almost 100 years earlier to knit provinces, regions, communities, languages, and cultures into a modern nation state—had done their work. Mentally, however, the notion of Canadian patriotism was still a work in progress: struggles between anglophone and francophone cultures would still come to the fore every so often, but most people in the country considered themselves either British or Canadian. For many of the privileged groups, Canada was undoubtedly and proudly the premiere White Man’s Country, and the commitment to whiteness was supposedly the primary reason for this rising prosperity.

If there was any real concern about whether this prosperity could be maintained, it lay in the realization that immigration was not hitting the expected targets—Canada was having difficulty attracting immigrants who could become new citizens, new workers, and new consumers. But the truth was immigration was lagging because Canada wasn’t attracting the type of immigrants it preferred. The world was full of people willing to make Canada their home. But these potential immigrants weren’t what many thought of as “ideal Canadians”; namely, they weren’t white.

Many of the sleeping-car passengers arriving in Ottawa on that spring evening in 1954 were there for a protest. The group’s mission: to change the country. They were black men who had worked as sleeping-car porters on the country’s two main railways or who had come from homes and families with porters. The highlight of their visit, the delegation hoped, would be a meeting the next morning with Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

With the exception of a few allies—most prominently, members of Canadian Jewish communities—these protestors were very much on their own. They were travelling as members of the Negro Citizenship Association, a loose coalition of Black activists, mainly from around Toronto, who were demanding new thoughts about and action on who could become a Canadian citizen, a status to which, in practice, only white British subjects were entitled.

The porters wanted to shift Canada, to move it toward a future that would be very different from the one the country had established for itself through its plans and policies. Their proposal was an alternate model that no other European settlement in the hemisphere had attempted in modern times: a nation state created out of all the peoples of the world, a country of equality, where specific ethnic groups would not have all the privileges and others none, and where every member of society had an unhindered opportunity to rise to the best of their own ability and imagining.

If Canada itself were a train, you’d say it was at an important juncture. Determining on which track it would depart—thereby mapping out the country’s future—would be the focus of discussions between the train porters, their supporters, and Canada’s political officials.

From the beginning of Confederation, most passengers had travelled almost exclusively in the care of smartly dressed and always smiling Black porters, who manned the trains’ popular sleeping cars and parlour cars. Celebrated Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock had long described these porters as “smiling darkeys.” But these unobtrusive men on the transcontinental railway were as much iconic representatives of Canada and the Canadian experience as Mounties, moose, beavers, and iced-over hockey ponds.

As a group, and even as representatives of a racialized community, the Black train porters were politically invisible, remaining outside the social imagination of those considered “Canadians.” For the most part, Black train porters were, like the old adage about children, to be seen but not heard; they were not to speak unless spoken to. On the trains—referred to as “going on the roads” or “portering”—the porters were the invisible domestic workers who prepared for the party and stayed around to clean up afterwards. When passengers overindulged or were sick, for whatever reason, the porters nursed them. The porters had to painstakingly fill out company-mandated forms, and speculate on how contagious the passengers were. Often sleep deprived on their eight-day cross-country runs, porters had to maintain enough presence of mind to ensure passengers did not miss their stops or leave luggage and any valuables behind. A missed stop was at the top of a long list of dismissible offences the porters confronted on each trip. The highest reward for impeccable service wasn’t a salary or livable wage but a gratuity based on the whims of those they had to so carefully satisfy.

Like the chattel slaves in the Americas who, in many cases, were not only their elders or grandparents but also their archetypal work mentors, the porters were expected to be subservient, never questioning, always ready to issue the obligatory “yassir” and “thank you ma’am” before flashing a friendly smile, especially after receiving a tip for their good service. Though the porters were disdained in some parts of their communities as glorified chambermaids, the job itself was considered a good catch, with people often claiming that if a young Black woman wanted a secure future, her best bet was to marry a porter. From time to time, white people worked as porters, but in the main, from the beginning of the twentieth century, portering was predominantly a job for Black men. And this was how Black people became defined in the national, and, indeed, international imagination, as servers and second-class citizens.

Canada and the United States started out in the same position, as British colonies seeking to exploit the natural resources that had been under the custodianship of Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, yet Canada avoided the scars and legacy of the Civil War by keeping the “inferior races” out by severely limiting the entrance of Black people into the country. Within the British Empire, and the white world in general—Australia, New Zealand, and especially for South Africa, with whom Canada had always shared a “special relationship,” something akin to an elder mentoring a younger sibling—Canada offered an example of how to avoid the same pitfalls as the United States.

This narrative was perhaps best captured at the turn of the century, when Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, speaking to the Canadian Club in Ottawa on January 18, 1904, and responding to racial concerns on both sides of the border, stated, “as the nineteenth century was that of the United States, so I think the twentieth century shall be filled by Canada.” Laurier meant that Canada’s success would depend on maintaining and enforcing the colour line that was the basis for Jim Crowism in North America. Canada and the US would be the main protagonists in the battle to maintain white supremacy, but in Laurier’s mind there was no guarantee that the United States, with its legacy from the Civil War and a sizable Black population, would be able to achieve white dominance. Instead, Canada would be the home for whiteness in the western hemisphere—a promise that seemed to be falling into place when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, fulfilling a dream held by British society since the American War of Independence of once again bringing all the predominantly white and British dominions in the Atlantic into a single nation state.

To achieve this goal, Canadian policy makers had rejected several overtures from Britain to include the British West Indies in its possessions. From 1776 onwards, following the secession of the United States, the idea of Canada joining with all the remaining British possessions in the Atlantic to form a single political union that could easily rival the United States was widely discussed in British circles. Indeed, banding together in the face of anticipated US military aggression was very much part of the thinking that led to the creation of the Canadian Confederation ninety years later. By accepting Newfoundland into Confederation, Canadians partially attained their dream of establishing a unified British outpost in the Americas. As a white colony, Newfoundland got in; the West Indies were denied entry, however, because the residents were Black.

By the middle of the century, Canada had been successful in minimizing the visibility of Black people, primarily by allowing in only exceptional Black immigrants as students or to work as porters and by keeping the Black population low for generations. At Confederation, Canada had a Black population of about 20,000 people—which was already down from about 50,000 a decade earlier—out of a total Canadian population of 3.5 million. By the mid-twentieth century, almost 100 years later, it had only 18,000 Black people, who lived mostly in Halifax, New Glasgow, Sydney, and Amherst in Nova Scotia; Saint John in New Brunswick; Montreal in Quebec; and Toronto and Windsor in Ontario—with a smattering in Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. It was a controlled demographic spread that restricted Black people to a small presence mainly in the nation’s railway centres.

With a total population of about 15 million by the middle of the last century, Canada had kept its Black population to about 1 percent—a tenth of the percentage, proportionally, of Blacks to the general population south of the border. If a foreign group were larger than 1 percent of the total population, Canadian authorities feared these minorities might be disruptive and not be as easily controllable. As a result, Black immigration in the early twentieth century was limited annually to 100 people—mainly men—all of whom were channelled towards a career in portering.

Without the railways, however, the situation would have been even starker for Black people in Canada. Life in Canada’s Black communities revolved around the work of these porters. In 1950s Calgary, for example, when the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was founded by the leadership of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, some 90 percent of Black people in that city depended on the railways for employment. In Montreal, the famed Little Burgundy community of Black people developed and thrived in the shadows of the railways’ headquarters. Black communities and settlements in Halifax, Sackville, Toronto, Sudbury, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver fanned out from the railway stations, a visual reminder that Black people were central to the railways but marginal to the wider society.

The morning of the meeting, the delegates set out from the YMCA, and YWCA, where they had spent the night. Fog would rule most of what was a gloomy day of wind, snow, ice pellets, cold rain, and fluctuating temperatures.

Prime Minister Laurent was travelling and asked his minister of immigration, Walter Harris, to meet the delegation on his behalf. Harris and his staff, who were used to receiving delegations and deputations, were amazed at the number of people descending on their office. Thirty-five members strong, the delegation was unlike anything they had seen before from Black Canadians, causing a mad scramble by staff to round up enough chairs to seat everyone. The so-called Negro community, and the sleeping car porters in particular, had learned an important lesson in political activism: coalition building and large numbers were powerful.

Donald Moore, the president of the Negro Citizenship Association and main spokesman for the delegation, took over. He began by citing the long list of groups, unions, churches, and community organizations across the country that were supporting the delegation. The Negro Citizenship Association, he explained, “was born in response to the continued appeal of our brothers and sisters who were experiencing untold indignities and hardships occasioned by the wholesale rejection of their attempts to be legally admitted to Canada. At that time, not even close relatives were admissible.”

Moore was reminding Harris of a prolonged, ongoing battle in the Canadian House of Commons, in which allies of the porters and the Negro Citizen Association had been calling on the minister to change Canada’s racist immigration regulations. The country was being asked by a neglected and marginalized group of Canadians to account for its past behaviour and to imagine a future radically different from its past. The Canada that the train porter protesters were proposing would be a country based on inclusiveness and diversity where race would not matter. It would be a modern country in which ethnic “mongrelization,” or diversity, would be considered natural to the region—where the various peoples of the world freely mixed with the Indigenous people on whose lands these hemispheric colonies, dominions, and even independent republics were constructed. It was a model for a universal brotherhood, as it was called in the day, with all of humanity sharing the same collective dignity and sense of fraternity.

The train porters’ delegation was inviting Canada’s dominant groups to imagine living in a country in which the former white elites were just one of many subjects—equal to everyone else rather than everyone else being inferior to them. Neither would the white elites set the norms and standards for all matters, with all other citizens deferring to their priorities, leadership, and command. As citizens, other groups would matter too. Not only would Canada, sociologically and politically, become a country of free-willed agents and subjects who determined what to make of their own futures, it would be a country of the “others,” forcing Canadians of every racial and ethnic stripe to confront the fears they held. From their vantage point, white Canadians as a racialized group would have to come to terms with what it means to survive in a world where they were not automatically and exclusively in control. In this new world, emphasis would be placed on sharing and compromising rather than on exclusive ownership.

Yet there could be no change without someone daring to imagine new ways of life that were different from historical practices. This was the aim of the delegation of porters and allies visiting Ottawa: to bring about a change in how Blackness was thought of in an otherwise white social order.

Minister Harris would give the delegation what would later be described as a polite hearing, but little else. Apart from denying there was discrimination against Black West Indians, he defended the Canadian immigration policy as it was then constituted; mostly he just sat and listened. The temperature in room felt as chilly as it was outside the building.

“After the session was finished I couldn’t find my hat,” Moore recalled. “It was a sight to see the minister looking under chairs in an effort to find a hat for a delegate who didn’t have the sense enough to keep his hat on his head.”

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.

Adapted from They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters by Cecil Foster. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved. Published by Biblioasis.

Cecil Foster
Cecil Foster has published five works of non-fiction and four novels. Currently, he is Professor, Director of Graduate Studies, and Associate Director of Canadian Studies in the Department of Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.