A CBC BOOKS MUST-READ NONFICTION BOOK FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Nominated for the Toronto Book Award
Smartly dressed and smiling, Canada’s black train porters were a familiar sight to the average passenger—yet their minority status rendered them politically invisible, second-class in the social imagination that determined who was and who was not considered Canadian. Subjected to grueling shifts and unreasonable standards—a passenger missing his stop was a dismissible offense—the so-called Pullmen of the country’s rail lines were denied secure positions and prohibited from bringing their families to Canada, and it was their struggle against the racist Dominion that laid the groundwork for the multicultural nation we know today. Drawing on the experiences of these influential black Canadians, Cecil Foster’s They Call Me George demonstrates the power of individuals and minority groups in the fight for social justice and shows how a country can change for the better.
About the author
CECIL FOSTER was born in Barbados and immigrated to Canada in 1978. He has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the Financial Post and has contributed to such magazines as Chatelaine, Maclean’s, Toronto Life, NOW and Canadian Business. He has also worked for the CBC (in radio and television) and CTV and is a regular commentator in the national media. He has published five works of non-fiction and four novels, including his highly praised debut, No Man in the House. Currently, Foster is a professor of sociology at the University of Guelph and is director of graduate studies in the department of transnational studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Independence is his first novel in almost twelve years.
Excerpt: They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada (by (author) Cecil Foster)
Excerpt from They Call Me George
Sitting in his condominium apartment in Halifax, Harold Adams is at ease with the life he has built for himself and his family and with most of the recent progress of his country. But this was not always the case. “I don’t know how many times I came home and said I am not going back, this work is not for me,” he says as he passes out a cup of tea, perhaps with the same care that he would have offered such service to a stranger over the 35 years of working as a porter on Canada national passenger railway. Now he sits in the apartment among some of the memorabilia that resulted from the long years of service and with fellow retired porter Thornton William and life-long friend Michael Tynes reminisce about life on the road and what has become of Canada.
“When we were growing up as kids we always saw the porters when they got in from a trip,” recalls Tynes with a chuckle. “They were the best dressed guys around, they drove the cars and they had the nicest homes.”
“Well, not all porters had homes,” Adams chides gently, reminding that life was not that kind and equal to everyone working as porters on the railways. “But those that did, I used to think they were members of government, members of parliament, some official, ’cause we would always see them when they were dressed up and when they were leaving to go to work. But after they got to work, and after I got on the railway I learned that when they went to work they changed their clothes into a uniform, a white jacket with a collar that went around the neck, and I don’t like to say it but some people refer to them as monkey hats, and you had to wear that when you were on the job. In those days, you’d see very few Black people travelling in sleeping cars because it was too expensive; if they did travel the coach would be the best they could afford at that time. I am going back to the time when I first got onto the train like it was CNR then... After they made it VIA Rail.”
Williams too remembers seeing the porters around town. “There was this fellow that I didn’t quite know what he did. His name was Walter. I would see Walter around town and Walter was always well dressed and always had a little brief case with him and I kept thinking he was a lawyer. And it wasn’t until years later that I got to realize he was porter.”
Adams signed on to work on the passenger service for Canadian National railway in 1962. He found that when travelling away from home he would stay in private homes as was the case in Montreal where as many as 16 porters might share the bunk beds in the same room on the second floor of a home. “When I first went there, only Blacks stayed there but whites did not. When I first got there that was the way the porters lived. Whites working on the trains were waiters, stewards, conductors and cooks and they stayed elsewhere.” Segregation of Black and white workers was prevalent. “In Canada segregation existed all over. Even with government jobs, there were very few Blacks until around the 60s or late 50s, when Blacks started to get into the dockyards, but even when they did it was like porters….The reputations of us Blacks in general was that we were supposed to be good singers, good cooks, and good cleaners. And that existed in all Canada.”
Over a generation, these retirees have witnessed life changing somewhat for Black people in Canada. There are now more job opportunities available to Black Canadians, not like when they were teenagers. “In the days prior to us, Nova Scotia like other places in Canada was very prejudice jobwise,” Adams recalls. “We had men that went to high school and the best thing they could get, the best job they could get was working on the train. And Blacks in general, especially men, we got spread across Canada mostly from Nova Scotia. What they would do to recruit was to come down to Halifax, down in the valley the small places, and anybody that wanted to work and was capable of making beds, it wasn’t in those days hard work, but they took them and sent right across to Vancouver. In those days, there were very few Blacks living in upper Canada, like Calgary and Winnipeg and those places. They would take them across to live.”
The recruiters would also visit the British colonies in the Caribbean in search of porters for the railways and seamen for Canadian ships—oftentimes the recruits working on both the rails and ships. Elombe Mottley, son of a popular politician in Barbados in the first half of last century recalls in an interview: “When my father was growing up, even when I was a boy going to school in the late 1940s, you could always tell who was a seaman because his children always wore a gold plated watch, cause to own a watch in those days was a big thing.” One particular porter was popular in those days for his community mindedness, a man with the nickname Zephyr who coached boxing to the boys. When came the time for Mottley to plan for the rest of his life, he came to Canada to study medicine at the University of Manitoba in 1958, arriving in Canada knowing that like so many West Indian students before him he could supplement his income and get to see the rest of North America by working summers and winters as a sleeping car porter. Eventually Mottley decided to return to the Caribbean.
Canada became a confederation in 1867 and its history since then can be measured in how successful men like Adams, Williams and Tynes were able to make homes for themselves and their families in this country. Theirs is part of the story of a struggle to change Canada and to make it a place where Black boys and girls could grow up knowing that they have freedom of opportunity to become full fledged Canadians. This then is a story of the struggle for the recognition of dignity and for citizenship.
Let’s presume that in this country we are all fully human, something that wasn’t always a given for people with Black skins or African ancestry. As a meaningful description, then, our greatest characteristic is our dignity: it’s the basis on which we act out the bond we call citizenship. As a basic building block for our social interactions, dignity is what we all have in common, what in our human diversity makes us all equal. As citizens of this specific country, we recognize all fellow members as possessing this dignity, of agreeing to common and preferred ways of collectively acting out our basic humanity in solidarity and fraternity. What make us unique as a nation-state is the particular ways we recognize a common dignity in every member, how we celebrate our unique humanness in a way that makes our country and the way nationals live unique. What makes Canada unique, for example, is that it is supposedly a place—an oasis as it were carved out of the rest of the world—with its peculiar practices of recognizing the dignity inherent in all citizens. This is the vaunted Canadian way.
Dignity does not reveal itself in any specific form, neither does it take any specific colour or hue; it is common across all races and ethnicities, religions and creeds, across all nationalisms, social categorizations and the lack thereof. Indistinguishable, it just exists and can be seen on the face of every human, in the way they walk, talk, play or perform any task, in the way they demand to be treated and how they treat others. Dignity is something that we can never lose, not even when incapacitated, and still be human; indeed, anyone having this dignity must de facto be human, it comes simply with possessing the human form; even the human dead is deemed to still have dignity as so many soldiers charged with war crimes have learned the hard way, or civilians going around desecrating graves and headstones. Dignity cannot be bought or sold, and its supply is not controlled by the vagaries of markets, the wealth of individuals or any other social categorization that determines statures and usefulness in any society. For in its indeterminacy dignity exists before the state intervenes and establishes social functions and the norms that go with them, before the collective or dominant will in the state starts divvying out inequalities. Dignity is a given, even if a society’s recognition of it in its members is more deliberate—often enunciated in laws, bills and charters of rights, regulations, codes, policies and practices—all determined decisions of how to treat one another in a dignified way that is so common it produces a particular culture. Ironically, dignity can only be meaningful in a society.
So if we cannot feel, taste, see, smell or hear dignity, if we cannot use our senses of description to know it, how can we claim dignity as the basis for human equality? Perhaps, we are asking the wrong question—and perhaps we err by relying on signs and symbols analogously to help us to understand something, like an assumed human nature itself, that is unquantifiable. What if we see this dignity as a social convention, a moral belief based on the idea that as human beings we have the right and ability equally to make ourselves better, and in seeking this social perfection to do so in concert with others who share the same attributes and characteristic that is dignity? Freedom, or not to be held mentally or physically in bondage or forced compulsion, seems to capture much of what we imagine dignity entails. Dignity and freedom, as ill defined conceptually as they are, bring specific expectations to mind as we think of how we would expect to be treated by others and supposedly how we should treat them. Ethically dignity would be written into our rules of engagement with one another and would govern our expectations. Citizenship would be the expression of dignity. Dignity is about existence—to be is to have it, freedom and citizenship are its vehicles. It is about acting in good faith.
In keeping with the latter thinking we would be shifting the conversation from decoding signs and symbols—such as relying on the physicality of the color of the skin, the height of the person, the differences in genitals, the language spoken—of dignity as an intangible, as an indication of a relationship between human beings who might be different in as many ways physical as they are people, but as a measurement of the bond resulting from acts of volition for sharing the same intentions and goals. Therefore, whether they are physically or ontologically equal at the beginning of the relationship is not the question of concern, but rather once they are in a relationship our worry would be whether they are treated with the same touch agreeable as common to all participants. In this respect, dignity makes us all relations, social relatives bound together in a fraternal affiliation the strength of which is the expression and actions that flow from the recognition that other fellow travellers are following the same moral and ethical commands and are bound to the same expectations. We would then be all like passengers on a train heading generally in the same direction even if specifically we board and exist at different stops, perhaps some of us even ending up at the final stop or terminus, the farthest point the train would take us.
What I have just described is the challenge undertaken by a group of people in the early part of the last century. They were attempting to shift the perception of fellow residents in their social world from one based exclusively on signs and symbols—from description—to one based on relationship among people who could be deemed to be morally entitled because of their relationship, in this case, in the exercise of nation building. The result of this attempted shift is the creation in the northernmost tip of North America, as part of an overall Western Hemisphere experience, of a country that is idealistically based not on what people look like or how they can be described physically or biologically, not even about what they do privately, but on what they share. Morally and ethically we are talking about how in fellowship people agree to treat one another, and in practice how faithful they are in keeping this agreement.
Such is the story of Canada and of the largely social outcasts, described as Black sleeping car porters, and how these workers were in the vanguard for the creation of a new and modern Canada that now presents itself to the world as a paragon of harmoniously human relations—a country that transformed itself from descriptively a White Man’s country into relationally a multicultural one, to where every Canadian is supposedly treated with human dignity presumably held in equal proportions. This is the story of how these porters came into their own as a social and political force in a very special moment in time—a story of how they changed Canada profoundly, setting it on a course that in good faith would make it idealistically a homeland for all forms of humanity.
Praise for They Call Me George
"Foster had the courage to examine the realities of race in this country long before it was commonplace to do so...Canadian multiculturalism rests on the shoulders of the sleeping car porters." —Globe and Mail
"Every Canadian of every ethnicity and walk of life should read this wonderful account...They Call Me George is a riveting, tour de force written by an award winning, master story-teller who entertains while he teaches." —The Caribbean Camera
"In [They Call Me George]...Foster aims to restore the identities of the Black men who once worked on Canadian railroads. In the process, he also excavates a chapter of Canadian history that has been largely erased from the collective memory: the role that Black train porters played in furthering social justice and shaping Canada into the country it is today." —Toronto Star
"Foster has dissected the myth of Canadian tolerance, born of our history as a haven for refugee slaves—exposing instead a past in which the English and French elites fought to create a white nation...Blacks and other Canadians of colour are not merely the beneficiaries of multiculturalism; they are its architects." —Donna Bailey Nurse, Literary Review of Canada
"Informative and well-written...We owe a debt of gratitude to [the porters], and to Foster for his masterful and insightful research and writing." —Daily Nation (Barbados) "An excellent, well-written, and historically accurate volume." —UK Barbados Nation
"A bold book by a self-assured scholar who has rewritten our conventional history...says Foster: 'This important piece of Canadian history has yet to be fully told.' They Call Me George is [his] effort to do just that." —The Winnipeg Free Press
"Many of us still regard “black history” as a niche subject, and Black History Month as more political correctness than serious reflection on our past. We are wrong to do so...[Foster] shows just how wrong we are...he makes his case very well." —The Tyee
"Mr. Foster’s well-written book about black train porters contains a wealth of information that is illuminating, revealing and, at times, disappointing. The beauty of the Canadian railroad had its ugly side, too." —The Washington Times
"Foster’s research was extensive, and the book is well put together. Its anecdotes and personal accounts make for a lively and engaging read. This reviewer urges every Black household to get a copy and suggests that everyone—Black, White and Brown—should read it." —Montreal Community Contact
Praise for Cecil Foster
"Cecil Foster is a wise man with a flair for storytelling and writing that enters the heart.” —Quill & Quire (Starred Review)
“Foster’s story of a West Indies community in transition is a marvelous read, filled with humour, sorrow, and wit, and told with the deft and gentle touch of a master storyteller.” —Thomas King
“Cecil Foster kicks up one hell of a class-war fuss and proves he’s got stuff enough to show those mediocre storytellers how it’s really done... Unforgettable.” —Toronto Star
“With Independence, Foster elegantly equates the coming of age of his protagonists with the coming of age of the nation. At the same time, he interprets that enduring theme so aptly articulated in the writings of critic Wilfred Cartey: I going away. I going home.” —National Post
“I don’t know when I’ve read a more evocative book about black men. Read it and you will see the world differently.” —Vancouver Sun “Foster brings historical depth to his work and shows that the social and political recognition of blackness and multiculturalism is itself a contingent moment in history.” —George Dei, University of Toronto “Sharp-edged…moving.” —Kirkus Reviews