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Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters in Canada

Exhibitions → Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters of Canada

All aboard! Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters in Canada is a multimedia exhibition produced by Museum of Toronto in collaboration with author/scholar Cecil Foster.

The legacy of Canada’s Black railway porters can be seen in the diverse cultural communities that make up Toronto, and many of the fair employment practices we benefit from today. Yet few know the history of the porters and the significant contributions they have made to the fabric of modern Canadian society.

Canada was built around the railways — known by many as the famed ribbon of steel. The heyday for rail passenger travel was the first six decades of the 1900s. During this time, widely adapted inequalities, often racial, meant that railways provided one of the few work opportunities available to Black men. Employed on the trains as sleeping car porters providing luxury service, porters experienced racial discrimination and exploitation on the job every day.

Untenable working conditions inspired the porters to fight for significant improvements. Through the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), and under the leadership of Toronto-born Stanley Grizzle, porters in Canada became pioneers in the fight for fair employment practices and for wider human rights. In 1954, porters boarded a railway car from Union Station to Ottawa to begin the fight to remake Canada into a more inclusive society. They advocated to change the immigration policy to a system that opened up Canada to immigrants from around the world. Today, the porters’ advocacy and activism continues to influence Canadian society and our city. Their impact on our labour, immigration, and multiculturalism policies has shifted our country, and set the stage for a Toronto that is now recognised as one of the most multicultural and multiracial cities in the world.

Produced by Museum of Toronto, the Derailed dramatic monologues seen throughout this exhibit were written and conceived by Meghan Swaby, directed by Byron Kent Wong, and filmed at Union Station.

Derailed is performed by Derick Agyemang, Daniel Jelani Ellis, Laurence Dean Ifill. This digital presentation was produced in partnership with zero11zero, Iron Bay Media, and Union.

Explore the
Digital Exhibit

Join us below to choose the route that fits your journey and interests. Watch dramatic monologues performed at Toronto’s Union Station, click through photographs and artifacts, and read about the history and conditions of Canada’s railways and the lives of porters on and off the tracks.

Explore the five themes below.