By Christo Aivalis
Cecil Foster in They Call Me George offers readers an excellent piece of accessible writing and analysis that skillfully melds together the multifaceted histories of labour, diplomacy, politics, gender, race, empire, and culture. In so doing, Foster puts forward—and convincingly defends—the thesis that Black train porters transformed the nature of Canadian society, especially in how it related to questions of race and immigration. Foster gives much of the credit to the porters, who not only fought for their own liberation and amelioration, but did so for all Black Canadians, and indeed all racialized people, against a white-supremacist understanding of Canada. Ultimately, “the train porters battled to make normal what is now socially routine, and even taken for granted” (12).
This book is at its very best when it draws the meaningful connection between the realities of the porters’ working experiences and their indispensable role in perpetuating black culture and fighting against white supremacy. As Foster notes, the Black porters, despite being marginalized relative to white workers on the railways, were nonetheless respected within the Black community, often because their long-distance travels helped to link disparate and small Black communities strewn across a vast nation. It was they who inspired trends in Black fashion, who patronized Black-owned businesses, who helped to spread vital news and literature, who built crucial personal relationships with travelling political figures, and who helped to build a shared-political consciousness aiming to win genuine equality and opportunity within and beyond the workplace. In more ways than one, Foster suggests that the generations of activism by Blacks in Canada culminated in the efforts of the porters.
Connected to this is how the porters—many of whom came from the British West Indies—fought to transform Canada’s immigration system, which was until the 1960s an explicitly racist one. This was especially galling for the porters because, as subjects of the British Empire/Commonwealth, they were equal to white Canadians, even if not in practice. Indeed, as Foster shows, most of Canada’s political and economic elite had worked to systematically exclude Black peoples, believing them to be unsuited for Canada’s geographic and cultural climate, and fearing that large influxes of non-white peoples would leave Canada with the same social strife that plagued the United States. It was perhaps the porters above all who led the campaign against these racist beliefs and regulations, paving the way for all sorts of ‘undesirable’ immigrants. In all this, the porters, in alliance with the people of the various West Indies nations, helped to fundamentally reshape the Commonwealth and Canada’s role therein. And as Foster suggests, it was the British West Indies that provided Canada with “the model of an organic multiracial society, where peoples of the world could live together” (175). So while the railways and passengers often demanded from Black porters “the kind of attention expected for guests in antebellum great houses” (55), the porters themselves organized valiantly against white supremacy in Canada.
All of this is incredibly convincing and is rooted in both a dedicated objective to centre the voices of the porters themselves, but also in a robust historical and theoretical understanding of the Black experience in Anglo North America. Some issues arise, however, when Foster engages with wider questions of Canadian labour and political history. For instance, Foster is right to note the role that white trade unionists played in forging and perpetuating white supremacy on and beyond the rails, but perhaps aims his target too closely at figures like Aaron Roland (A.R.) Mosher, who he paints as the driving force of white supremacy within the labour movement. Mosher and the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE) are portrayed as the union that solidified the colour bar on Canada’s railways, but it should be noted that the CBRE were the first—and for a long time only—railway union in Canada to accept Black members. It is certainly accurate to criticize the union’s failure to desegregate their seniority lists, but painting Mosher and the CBRE as villains in relation to the more ardently-exclusive craft brotherhoods is perhaps over-simplistic.
Likewise, Foster quotes a 1946 Canadian Congress of Labour report referencing desirable white immigrants as an example of Mosher reinforcing a white supremacist Canada. But he fails to acknowledge that, during the question portion directly following that report, Mosher declared that Canada should freely accept non-white immigrants, a position Trades and Labor Congress (TLC) President Percy Bengough rejected, even though the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were affiliated to the TLC. Lastly, Foster blames the Canadian labour movement’s split on Mosher and the All-Canadian Congress of Labour’s nationalism, but does not reference the fact that it was the TLC who expelled the CBRE in 1921 for not merging into an American union, and it was the TLC who in 1902 expelled all Canadian locals who refused to obtain membership within American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions.
None of this undermines the book’s core thesis, or even many of its secondary points, but is perhaps driven by the fact that the book makes insufficient reference to some of the historiography not directly related to its main premise. While there are meticulous citations of those issues directly related to the porters, very few references are made to scholarship relating to Canadian labour history, either in general, or its relationship to race and immigration. Similarly, the book speaks rather fondly of both the rise of official multiculturalism and the enshrinement of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but does not meaningfully engage with the scholarship that is critical of these seminal events.
But lest this criticism be misunderstood, it should be restated that this is a pioneering effort that should not be ignored by anyone interested in labour, political, diplomatic, or social history. Despite its limitations, Foster has given us in They Call Me George an indispensable look into how the Black Canadian porters played a foundational role in the building of contemporary Canada.
Christo Aivalis is SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. He is also the author of The Constant Liberal Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left.