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Enacting Change

Digital Exhibitions → Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters in Canada → Theme: Enacting Change

In 1939, a group of porters decided to invite the American union organizers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) to organize Black Canadian porters as a trade union. The BSCP was the main union that led the fight by porters for social and political change in Canada and the United States. Founded in New York by porters a few years earlier, the American BSCP was under the leadership of Asa Philip Randolph, an outstanding Black civil rights champion. Before that, porters in Canada had tried to form their own unions. These efforts were crushed by the railway companies. At Canadian National Railway (CNR), porters found themselves in a union which worked in league with management to keep the Black porters from working in other railway jobs reserved only for white people. At Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), porters were represented by a management-appointed association, which was intended to work with management on behalf of the porters. The porters found that in disputes around working conditions, the association tended to side with management. This meant the porters had no clout in negotiations as the association did not fully represent their interests. The BSCP stepped into this void and quickly established Canadian chapters, replacing the management-appointed associations.

Especially after World War II, Toronto would become the hot spot for union activity by the porters and their allies. One name stands out among the BSCP leadership: Stanley Grizzle, head of the Toronto chapter. In 1954, Grizzle and the Toronto Chapter paid the cost for a delegation of porters and their allies to travel from Toronto to Ottawa to meet with the government to protest the treatment of Black and other peoples of color. At this meeting, the porters called for drastic changes in Canadian immigration policies. They sowed the seeds of desegregation that would eventually bloom into the multicultural Canada of today.

Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
In Toronto and Ontario, the struggle by the Black porters to fight against the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the government for better treatment and equality was led by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).

Porters Go to Ottawa
In 1954, a delegation of Black people fighting for greater citizenship rights decided to take their fight to the federal government in Ottawa. They assembled at Union Station in Toronto for the eight-hour trip on a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) train to Ottawa. The Toronto chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a trade union of Black porters, helped pay the delegation’s fares. The briefs presented by Moore and Grizzle would sow the seeds that changed Canada into a multicultural society.

Porters Take on Ontario
The sleeping car porters were active members in the formation of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and in other areas of organized labour and political activism. The porters had to fight against white unions that would deny them membership in the new organization.

Women’s Auxiliary
The Women’s Auxiliary was primarily made up of the wives and significant others of the porters. These women were the backbone to the porters’ activism across Canada. Among their jobs was to maintain the administrative books, set the agendas for meetings of the porters, and to cater to out-of-town officials in the union movement.