They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
by Cecil Foster
Biblioasis, 295 pages, $22.95
This book’s title, its engaging front cover of a black train porter, and its inside blurb led me to expect that it told personal stories about the lives of individual porters. There is some of that, but a reader looking to be entertained with lively railway yarns may be disappointed.
Instead, this is a serious book that challenges the notion of Canada being a kinder, gentler, more tolerant place for blacks than, say, that country just south of us. If you think Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was a fine, enlightened fellow, then Cecil Foster’s argument that Laurier’s “policies aimed to make Canada into a country for white people only” might make you uncomfortable. And did you know that Canadian policy-makers rejected overtures from Britain to include the West Indies within Confederation? Foster says it didn’t happen because those in power wanted Canada to be a “White Man’s Country.”
Foster shows how black train porters — who were underpaid, overworked, and ineligible for promotion — played a key role in demanding fair treatment. He refers to a watershed event in 1954, when a train car filled with black porters and their allies descended on Ottawa to meet with federal cabinet members to demand immediate changes to discriminatory immigration and labour policies. (A year earlier, Ottawa had passed the Fair Employment Practices Act, which was supposed to protect workers against discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, national origin, and religion.) While actual change came slowly, there was a small victory in 1955, when the Canadian Pacific Railway hired its first black conductors.
By the early 1970s, Canada’s immigration policy changed to remove barriers based on skin colour, and multiculturalism became entrenched as national policy. In Foster’s view, black train porters deserve a large part of the credit for helping to make Canada the uniquely multicultural country it is today.