Why did Black Canadians want to work as railway porters from the late 19th century on? For their services, they received less than half of what was considered a living wage: the rest came from tips. They worked as long as 240 hours a month. They traveled thousands of miles every month, were ill fed and often had just three or four hours’ sleep a night. Their jobs ranged from shining shoes, stowing luggage and looking after children to cleaning the cars (no easy task in the age of dirty, coal-burning engines). And they had absolutely no job security: a single complaint from the pubic meant loss of livelihood.
Why did they want those jobs? In part, because there were few other jobs available to Blacks. As one porter wrote: “It wasn’t easy for a black man to get work but I got a job with CN as a porter on a train. I worked there from 1918-1962, that’s 43 years. I received my pension.…” The railway gave them at least some stability.
In 1918, these underprivileged workers formed the first Black union in Canada, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. The hostility of management destroyed their first attempt, but Black porters continued to fight for fairness in labour relations and for human rights, and eventually they won. The fact that discrimination is both socially unacceptable and against the law in today’s Canada is partly their victory.