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Black Railway Porters and Their Lasting Impact on Canada's Multiculturalism Policy

Learn about the lasting impact that Black railway porters have had on Canada's multiculturalism policy.

When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced in 1971 that Canada was officially a multicultural country, he was signaling a clear break in Canadian history. This was the beginning of a new country — a modern Canada — with the goal of the providing social justice to all Canadians. In effect, Trudeau was philosophically adopting many of the suggestions from political activists like the porters and their allies who had been calling for Canada to make a clean break with its past. The Toronto chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and its allies were among the earliest advocates for a multicultural Canada. They wanted Canada to become a place where race does not matter.

From the inception of Canada, Black porters had worked on the trains that attempted to knit separate regions, provinces, languages and peoples into a confederation. But they always advocated against the idea and practices that Canada was only for the benefits of white or European peoples. Porters led the fight against Canada as a “White Man’s Country.” In 1971, when Canada officially became a multicultural country, the porters could celebrate the idea that Canada had ceased to be a racist country. For them, Canada would essentially become a brotherhood of sorts, with membership opened to all human beings.

As a multicultural country, Canada had to dismantle an immigration system that had been in place since confederation and accepted only white people. This was a system devised to produce a “White Man’s Country” by selectively choosing white people to become future Canadians. Porters had suggested that Canada should adopt an immigration policy that allowed it to recruit new citizens from around the world, regardless of their racial and ethnic profile. Another key feature of this legislation was the prominence it gave to family reunification, making it easier for immigrants to sponsor their family to Canada. The acceptance of these features, long advocated for by Black communities, was the main principle informing Canada’s new Immigration Act of 1976. The Immigration Act made possible the ultimate transformation of Canadians into a multicultural people.

In 1977, Canada implemented a New Citizenship Act. This was a historic moment. With this new law, Canada was deciding who was truly a Canadian and who would enjoy all the rights and privileges of Canadian citizenship. The proclamation of this law was another step in dismantling the old Canada and the beginning of a multicultural society in modern Canada. Under this law, race would not be part of the criteria determining who received Canadian citizenship.

Caption: Portrait of Citizenship Judge Stanley Grizzle. William J. Stapleton / Library and Archives Canada. Courtesy of Estate of William J. Stapleton.

Stanley Grizzle, a leading figure in the mobilization of Black porters advocating for a just society, had lived to see the birth of the new Canada that he had spent most his life fighting for. In 1978, Grizzle became the first Black Citizenship judge in Canada. His main job was to swear in immigrants from all parts of the world as new Canadian citizens. He would make it a point of telling them about their rights and privileges as Canadians. It was a job and citizenship ritual he enjoyed immensely.

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