Fighting the Empire
Race, War, and Mobilization
The climate had dramatically changed for black railroaders in Canada by World War I and forced a more urgent appeal for the federal government to halt the advancement of Jim Crow in industry and public life. African Canadians feared that, if left to their devices, employers would capitalize on the distraction occasioned by the war and exploit their workers with even greater impunity. John A. Robinson, the OSCP’s leader and its chief architect, rallied black railwaymen in defense of their rights, citing the critical import of laborbased radicalism. For Robinson and other black leaders, the Great War era made clear that Jim Crow practices could quickly expand beyond the realm of labor and immigration legislation. As a result, African Canadians joined forces in defiance of violations of their rights, marshaling the language of manhood and citizenship when making their case with federal bureaucrats, employers, and those blacks in Canada new to protest politics.
While John A. Robinson faced down the specter of Jim Crow in Winnipeg’s stockyards, Toronto and Halifax sleeping car porters launched their attack on segregation in another sector of the federal government—the Department of Militia and Defence. J. R. Whitney formed the vanguard of that offensive with his African Canadian newspaper the Canadian Observer. Whitney and his supporters argued that the Great War presented African Canadians with an opportunity to prove that they were dedicated citizens capable of upholding the British Empire in its time of need; convincing Prime Minister Borden and the Department of Militia and Defence proved their first of many fights.