Cecil Foster. They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis. 2019. 295 pages. African Canadian History.
Reviewed by H. Nigel Thomas
Cecil Foster’s latest book, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada, is nothing short of a panegyric to those Black men who fought White bigotry in Canada for three-quarters of a century.
Foster credits them for the revamping of the Canadian immigration system that excluded non-Whites for a widening of employment opportunities for Blacks in Canada, and for a multitude of other initiatives from which Blacks today benefit. Foster quotes the eminent African American scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois on the educational responsibility of the Black artist/scholar to provide a corrective to the distortions about Black reality found in the dominant European and Euro-American narratives. This book amply fulfills that calling.
A major contribution of this work is its shattering of the myth, born out of the Underground Railroad, that Canada has been a welcoming country for Black people. When one thinks of all-White immigration policies, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand come to mind because of their statutes that excluded non-Whites. Few Canadians will know that Canada’s earlier immigration policy was designed with a similar goal, and that Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, and Louis Saint-Laurent, prime ministers accorded a laudatory place in Canada’s historical narrative, were negrophobes.
Time and again these prime ministers cited the ideas put forward by race theorist Robert Knox to defend their all-White immigration policy. Knox not only justified dispossessing the natives of their land, he argued as well for a geographical separation of the races. Failure to do so would create “social mules . . . [and] nature produces no mules; no hybrids, neither in man nor in animals” (79). Knox’s views were cited ad infinitum, sometimes verbatim, to keep Black and Brown peoples from settling in Canada.
But apart from its inherent bigotry, there were a couple of problems with Canada’s race-based immigration policy: (1) there were jobs that Euro-Canadians avoided; (2) immigration from the British Isles, and later all of Europe, was insufficient for the development of the Canadian economy.
One such category of jobs was sleeping car porters: the Black men who catered to the needs of wealthy train travellers at a time when rail was the principal form of travel. The onerous and humiliating working conditions of these men, from the beginning of the late nineteenth century and even beyond 1945, when they signed their first unionized contract, explain why only those without other employment prospects took those jobs.
According to Frank Gairey, “We only got three hours sleep a night, four nights on the road. That’s twelve hours sleep for four days . . . The most difficult job I had was keeping awake.” (67) The porters had to be ready for all eventualities.
They were required to be at the stations hours before the train left and to do housekeeping duties after it got to its destination but were only paid for the number of hours the journey lasted. This practice, termed “deadheading,” was designed on the one hand to reduce the requisite number of hours for the porter to receive his full monthly pay, and on the other to give the company free labour.
Citing C.L. Dellums, Foster informs us that in 1924, 335 hours were considered to be a full month for a pay of $60. “There was no way for them to make $60 because the Pullman Company had all kinds of schemes to prevent paying. . . It was common for porters to go to work at three or four o’clock in the afternoon and the pay would [only] start [at] midnight.” Even so when workers exceeded the requisite number of hours they were not compensated. There was the case of a worker doing 485 hours and getting no additional pay. (65).
Many Black men, including university students from the Caribbean, took these jobs because no others were available. On the issue of Black employment, Foster cites the late Honorable Lincoln Alexander, member of parliament and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario: “Blacks were reduced to doing such jobs as plucking feathers, being maids . . .” (41) Alexander’s father was a sleeping car porter. His long absences resulted in marital strife that caused the marriage to dissolve.
The porters’ early attempts at unionization met with dismissals. Eventually, working together with A. Phillip Randolph, who’d effected the unionization of Pullman Porters in the United states and played a prominent role in the battle for African American civil rights, the Canadian porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which was led by two very able men: A. R. Blanchette in Montreal and Stanley Grizzle in Toronto.
The Brotherhood signed its first contract in 1945. But they were excluded from membership in the more powerful Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transportation and General Workers Unions even though they paid dues to it. The latter was led for a long time by Aaron Mosher, an avowed racist. In fact that discrimination on the part of the railways was acknowledged in 1961, and it was only then that porters, who were all Black, were allowed to be promoted as conductors. The struggle to get there was Herculean.
Foster frames the narrative with a delegation to Ottawa, in 1954, organized by the Negro Citizenship Association, one of the organisations that the Brotherhood was instrumental in forming in cities all across Canada to push for greater civil rights for Blacks and an opening up of immigration from the English-speaking Caribbean. The pressure from Grizzle and others on various social institutions and the Canadian and Ontario governments led to changes in attitudes to Blacks and to a loosening of immigration laws, beginning with the John Diefenbaker government and culminating with the policy of multiculturalism under Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
I am sure there are many who could argue cogently that the immigration changes would have occurred anyway. However, the point here is that the Brotherhood and the associations it created lobbied extensively for these changes.
There is so much more to be said about this book. Foster’s research was extensive, and the book is well put together. Its anecdotes and personal accounts make for a lively and engaging read.
This reviewer urges every Black household to get a copy and suggests that everyone—Black, White and Brown—should read it.