Black men employed as sleeping car porters in Canada from the late nineteenth century until the mid-1950s experienced racial discrimination and exploitation on the job. To improve their situation they turned to unions such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Sleeping car porters
By Travis Tomchuk, Curator
During this period, Black men had very few job opportunities open to them. Prevailing racist attitudes held that Blacks were socially inferior to whites and were meant to work in vocations that reinforced this attitude, such as that of the sleeping car porter. Black men from across Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and as far away as Wales and the Dutch East Indies were hired as sleeping car porters for Canadian railway companies. In this role, porters were responsible for catering to their passengers' every need.
Porters tended to be highly educated men, many with university degrees in science, medicine, and business administration. Unfortunately, racist hiring policies prevented these men from working in their fields of expertise. For many, the best option was to find employment as a sleeping car porter. The pay was low and the hours long. As former porter Stanley G. Grizzle explained, “Why did I get a job as a porter on the railway? I couldn’t get anything else – and I didn’t want to starve.” 1
Why did I get a job as a porter on the railway? I couldn’t get anything else – and I didn’t want to starve.
The typical run lasted 72 hours but porters were not provided with sleeping quarters aboard the train. Instead, they would have to take naps when and where they could.2 Porters could eat in the dining car outside the regular hours of operation, such as early in the morning. However, if early-rising passengers were eating breakfast at the same time as porters, a curtain would be pulled between the porters and passengers.3
To improve their working conditions and because white unions would not allow Blacks as members, porters began to organize their own union. Though early attempts at unionizing Canadian Pacific Railway porters were unsuccessful, this changed in 1939 when porters began organizing with the support of the US-based Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).4 For the next few years, porters across the country began organizing in secret so they would not lose their jobs. In 1942, porters voted to unionize but a collective bargaining agreement was not finalized until May 1945. This was the first time in Canadian history that a union of Black men had signed an agreement with a white employer. Some of the gains made included a monthly salary increase, one week’s paid vacation, and overtime pay.5
However, the struggle for racial equality and respect on the job was not over with unionization. Porters were still discriminated against when applying for the position of conductor – a role reserved for whites. The BSCP filed an official complaint with the Federal Department of Labour under the Fair Employment Act of 1953. After a year of “conciliation and persuasion,” one of the complainants, George V. Garraway, was hired as a conductor – the first Black Canadian to be hired to this position in Canada6.
1. Stanley G. Grizzle, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1998) 37.
2. Grizzle 26–27, 42; Sarah-Jane Mathieu, “North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle Against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880–1920.” Labour/Le Travail 47 (2001): 15–16.
3. Grizzle 38–40.
4. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was established by Asa Philip Randolph in New York City in 1925. Grizzle 21.
5. Agnes Calliste, “Sleeping Car Porters in Canada: An Ethnically Submerged Split Labour Market,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 19.1 (1987): 9; Grizzle 23.
6. Calliste 11–12; Grizzle 19.