Jim Crow Rides This Train
Segregation in the Canadian Workforce
In April 1854, the Great Western Railway declared that it urgently needed eight hundred workers to guard its tracks against stray cattle and hog crossings. Its advertisement, strategically placed in Canada’s most important black newspaper of the day, the Provincial Freeman, sought African Canadians for the task.1 Before the turn of the twentieth century, African Canadian men laid down tracks for the transcontinental railroad and worked as cooks and dining car attendants for the Grand Trunk Railway.2 Black workers earned a more prominent place on the rails by the 1880s with the introduction of the Pullman Palace Car Company’s sleeping car service. Canadian railway companies modeled their sleeping and dining car departments after Pullman’s plan, favoring black men for the task of serving affluent white passengers. By 1910, however, they feared that the growing paranoia over black immigration witnessed in Western Canada would jeopardize their continued access to black railwaymen.
Canadian railway companies experienced rapid growth between the 1880s and World War I thanks to the completion of the transcontinental line. They spent the period bemoaning persistent labor shortages, blaming restrictive immigration and labor laws for their troubles. William Van Horne, general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, fumed over Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s opposition to foreign industrial workers, insisting that Canadian prosperity depended on unencumbered immigration. Van Horne, who normally remained tight lipped on federal matters, denounced Canada’s restrictive immigration policy, claiming that “what we want is population. Labour