Sunday, October 4, 2015

The CNR Porter's cap recalls the shame of a racist past

An exhibit at the Alberta Railway Museum, this cap was once worn by a porter on the CNR. To me, it evokes my first view of the Rockies after growing up on the flat prairie till age 7.

When as a child I watched the friendly black porters letting down the upper berth so I could climb up the ladder and sleep in the cosy cubby -- such bliss -- I knew nothing of how the railways treated these men. Recruiting men from across Canada, the US and the Caribbean, the railways kept black men in the dead end job of sleeping car porters. They were not allowed to apply as conductors, a job reserved for whites.

They worked long hours for low pay, preparing beds for others. Shockingly, they were not given sleeping quarters on the train. The typical run was 72 hours, and these workers had to snack and nap when and where they could, out of sight of passengers.
During World War II, when trains were busy, Canadian porters finally formed a union. Their first collective agreement was signed in 1945, but racist social attitudes still prevailed. The first black Canadian to be given the job of railway conductor did not take up his post until 1954. 

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