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The Fight against Racial Discrimination

For the week of Monday May 12, 2008

On May 18, 1945, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters signed its first collective agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway at the Windsor Train Station in Montréal. The event marked an historic agreement between a union formed by Afro-Canadians and a white employer in Canada.

Interior of Canadian Pacific Railway sleeping car in November 1892.
© Glenbow Archives, NA-1825-5
In the Afro-Canadian communities at the time, sleeping car porters were highly respected, as the work was the highest-ranking employment accessible to them. There was no possibility of promotion, but they considered the job an opportunity for steady employment. However, working conditions were poor. At times, porters worked 24 consecutive hours without overtime pay. They were constantly reminded that they were inferior to the passengers, most of them white. Passengers would often address porters in a condescending manner by calling them “George,” after the inventor of the sleeping car, George Pullman.

Black porters, inspired by the white workers’ union movement, decided to band together through a union to improve their situation. Initially, they tried to join existing unions, but their charters often contained a clause restricting membership to white employees only. In 1918, with the assistance of J.A. Robinson, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters was created to assist Afro-Canadian porters hired by the Canadian Northern Railway , later a part of Canadian National Railway. This union helped black railway company employees win a number of improvements in wages and working conditions. 

Stanley Grizzle visits a George Brown College class with his book My Name's Not George: The Story of the Sleeping Car Porters in Canada.
© George Brown College, Maureen Hynes, March 2000

Meanwhile, the Afro-Canadian employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway were also working toward organization. In 1925, A. Philip Randolph formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in New York. In 1942, three chapters of this union were created in Toronto, Montréal and Winnipeg, further to a clandestine campaign carried out in Canada from 1939 to 1941, with the help of Arthur Blanchette. Under the guidance of individuals like Stanley Grizzle, President of the Toronto Chapter, the Brotherhood continued to fight against discriminatory labour policies after signing its first collective agreement. In 1955, the union enjoyed a great victory when the Canadian Pacific Railway agreed to give porters opportunities for promotion. The Brotherhood disappeared completely from Canada in 1978 after the creation of Via Rail Canada, which took over passenger service.

The efforts of the Afro-Canadian porters had a major impact on the struggle for human rights in Canada. Black Railway Porters and their Union Activity was declared a National Historic Event in 1994.

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