Bonds of Steel
Depression, War, and International Brotherhood
Arthur Robinson Blanchette felt the sting of the Great Depression. Born in St. Vincent in 1910, the son of a prominent dentist, Blanchette lost his father in childhood, the victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic sweeping the globe during the Great War era.1 In 1927, he boarded a steamship for the United States, bound for medical studies at Howard University, then a crucial training ground for North America’s burgeoning caste of civil rights activists. Wide eyed and eager, Blanchette enjoyed campus life, as well as the prosperity and prestige that it promised, particularly for young black men.2 Regrettably, Blanchette’s funds dried up well before his thirst for knowledge ever did. Forced out of Howard before completing his intended degree, the frustrated Blanchette cut short his experiment with black campus life and did what thousands of other men and women did during the Great Depression: he got his first job.
Blanchette set off for Winnipeg in 1931 to join his namesake and uncle John Arthur Robinson, the most prominent black railway unionist in Canada. Despite being ousted from the rails because of his tenacious unionization efforts, Robinson still held enough clout to secure a summer portering position for his nephew on the Canadian Pacific Railway.3 The two Kittitians formed an immediately powerful bond. One a scholar and the other an activist, they exchanged ideas and strategies, wedded philosophy and pragmatism, and breathed new life into Winnipeg’s Depression-beaten black community. Robinson, by then also president of the Porter’s Social and Charitable Association, a racial uplift organization created to help blacks in