Author sees the hope and despair of Canada's racial history

Apr 25, 2019

Racism, says author Cecil Foster, "can easily leave you hopeless." It's a theme the former Canadian journalist explores in his 13th book, "They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada." In narrowing his narrative to the trials and efforts of Canada's Black porters, Foster shows how the land which once served as the final destination for former slaves on the Underground Railroad went through many ugly decades of barring Black immigrants before becoming a modern, multicultural country.

The American launch of the book is at 7 p.m. at Talking Leaves Books, 951 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. The Chair of the Department of Transnational Studies at the University at Buffalo, Cecil Foster will be present to sign his book and discuss its message.

"In Canada in the 1860's, at that time there were about 50,000 Black people in Canada," Foster said.

"In the 1950's when the Canadian population had gone up many-fold, the Canadian Black population had decreased to 18,000."

The dramatic decline, Foster says, can be attributed to officials denying Black immigrants admission into Canada.

With few opportunities available to them, many Black men found their best option in the emerging railroad industry as porters on sleeping cars. Using porters to pamper passengers, railroads enjoyed great profits. Little of that windfall found its way into the porters' paychecks. 

In organizing their own labor union, porters were able to make slight gains. Still, larger railroad unions discriminated. Black porters were not promoted to the position of conductor, though they were often called upon to perform similar duties.

Foster highlights how the porters' union continued to press forward through the decades. In 1954--nine years before the March on Washington--"the Sleeping Car Porters in Canada organized a march of sorts to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, where they got on a train and went to Ottawa as a delegation to meet with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Immigration."

They demanded fair labor practices and immigration for Blacks and "led the charge, arguing the idea of Canada being a 'White Man's Country' was already bankrupt. There was no future to that. That Canada would become the laughingstock of the international community."

It would be nearly two more decades before many of those principles were embraced at the top levels of Canadian government. Black porters, Foster maintains, were vital to modern Canada. 

"I see them as founding people in the nation-state of Canada as a multicultural state," Foster said.

"I laud them for what they did. And I think there is a lot to be achieved to fully harvest the legacy they have given us, but they have put us on the right track--if I might use that pun."