North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880-1920

By Mathieu, Sarah-Jane | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880-1920


Mathieu, Sarah-Jane, Labour/Le Travail


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 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 railroaders became more prominent figures on Canadian rails by the 1870s when the Pullman Palace Car Company introduced sleeping car porters to Canada. [3] George Pullman advertised his porters much in the same way he did his opulent sleeping cars: both, he promised, would provide comfort, luxury, and great service. [4]

Canadian railway companies experienced rapid growth between the 1880s and World War I. They spent the period bemoaning persistent labour shortages, blaming restrictive immigration and labour 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 "[w]hat we want is population. Labour is required ... throughout North and South America." He stressed that the "governments of other lands are not such idiots as we are in the matter of restricting immigration." [5]

Annoyed with chronic workforce shortages, Canadian railway companies experimented with Canadian and foreign-born black labour. They initially envisioned black workers for treacherous work -- like hauling hog and cattle road kill from railway tracks -- believing that workers of African descent were well suited for those positions. Because demand for workers soared when able hands were few, African Canadian railwaymen eventually enjoyed a wider range of employment options during the early days of railroading. For instance, the Intercolonial Railways tapped into existing black communities in the Maritimes and Quebec, finding a ready-made pool of experienced transportation workers. In later years, the CPR turned a gleaming eye to Southern African Americans and West Indians as an under-explored source of cheap labour. As of the 1890s, company managers culled African American workers from the Deep South, exporting them to Canada as needed. By the turn of the century, Canadian industrialists also positioned black w orkers as a useful weapon against white workers clamouring for unionization.

White workers recognized management's heavy-handed tactics and protested the introduction of black workers in Canadian industries as demeaning to their manhood. Black labourers were, in their minds, scabs imported for the sole purpose of undermining unionization. The Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE), the most powerful railway union of its time, codified its contempt for black railwaymen at its inaugural meeting in 1908 by extending membership to white men only. Locked out of meaningful partnership with white railwaymen by constitutional decree, black railroaders witnessed white supremacy as an integral part of Canadian trade unionism.

Though excluded from white unions, black workers viewed the rails as a viable career path, defending their right to work and newly-found place in Canadian industry. They understood that companies saw them as a disposable workforce, easily dismissed during economic recession. Black railroaders protested their displacement and capitalized on the national press and House of Commons when making their grievances known. Though often migrant workers, they affirmed their right to a livelihood as well. Unable to gain the respect of their white co-workers, they formed a union of their own in 1917, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters -- the first black railway union in North America. …

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