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Sleeping Car Porters

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

By Graham Green


In this section of the blog, I would like to talk about three events in Canadian history that are not well known but have had a significant social impact in our nation. First, I will talk about the Black sleeping car porters in Canada, and then I will talk about the settlement of Africville. Finally, I will elaborate on the story of Viola Desmond.

Sleeping Car Porters

The black sleeping car porters worked aboard the Pullman carts which were named after their creator George M. Pullman. They became quite popular in Canada during the 1870s as a comfortable way for passengers to ride the train cars at night in luxury. The carts would come equip with berths that could be pulled out from the walls and came equipped with chandeliers and upholstery.1 The Pullman sleeper cars were transferred to Canada with a structure of slavery incorporated into their business model. 

Black car porters were often called George, who was the founder of the company. This signified a relationship of slavery, as slaves would often be addressed by their master’s name.2 The tasks of sleeping car porters included shining shoes, preparing berths for customers on long journeys, brushing off coats and hats, attending to sick adults along with keeping the cars safe from unruly passengers or thieves. The majority of sleeping car porters were black in Canada and they were given significantly low wages for their work. They were dependent on tips by performing tasks like shining shoes to survive because the pay was substantially low. This dependency on tips made it so Blacks were completely at the mercy of their customers and were forced into a servile state.3 Black Canadians were barred from decent career prospects because of attitudes that people had during this time period of White people being superior to Black people. Due to this societal viewpoint, the sleeping car porter was one of the only sources of employment for Black men. When on their shift, black sleeping car porters were not given a berth to sleep in on journeys that could last upward of 72 hours. They were only given a chair that they could fold out and sit in when not attending to guests. Porters also couldn’t eat with guests in the car and were only allowed to eat outside of hours of operation, usually in the morning. If guests were present during breakfast, though, a curtain would separate the black porters from the white passengers. Since there was no unionization among black sleeping car porters in the beginning, they could be dismissed whenever for no apparent reason.4

Despite the desire for black sleeping car porters to have better working conditions, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees refused to allow Black porters to join their union. Due to this in April 1917 the order of sleeping car porters was founded in Winnipeg by the porters: John Arthur Robinson, J.W Barber, B.F. Jones and Jones P. White. This became the first Black labor union in North America.5 The OSCP was frequently in conflict with the Canadian National Railway as they discriminated against Black car porters believing that they were a cheap source of expendable labor and that they did not deserve better working conditions. In 1919 the OSCP succeeded in securing better working conditions for both Black and White workers in the CNR, after only two years in operation.6 The OSCP also spoke out against White unionists who claimed that they should unite in solidarity but excluded Blacks.

After their successes with the CNR, the OSCP worked to consolidate workers in the Canadian Pacific Railway, but this company was very resistant to unionization and didn’t hesitate to fire porters on the spot for attempting to. 

In the 1920s, the CPR fired 36 porters who had upwards of 12 years’ experience for engaging in union activities. For 10 years sleeping car porter unionization was slowed down until the OSCP united with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters in 1939.7 A collective bargaining agreement was reached in 1945 which increased the monthly salary of porters: two weeks paid vacation after being employed for a year, better working conditions and overtime pay. The role of sleeping car conductor was barred from Black people, and the BSCP filed a complaint with the Federal department of labor under the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1953. After a year of pursuing their cause, the BSCP prevailed, and George V. Garraway was made the first Black sleeping car conductor in Canada. With the advent of increased technology, sleeping car porters have become a thing of the past. However, the story of Black sleeping-car porters is a perfect example of a minority group uniting in acts of social justice to dismantle discriminatory practices.8


Africville was a thriving Black community that had a long history of settlement going back to 1848. Black people settled in Nova Scotia prior to 1759, but after the American Revolution many Black families were promised a settlement in Nova Scotia and they migrated there. Due to discrimination, however, Black families were pushed to the outskirts of Nova Scotian society where they developed settlements on the poorest lands and Africville was one such settlement.9 For over 150 years the people of Africville developed a warm community where everyone was welcome. The community was underdeveloped, and the people of Africville were denied necessities of community living, even though they paid taxes. People had to boil their water from the well before it could be used for drinking or cooking as an example.10Ever since the Halifax explosion that occurred in 1917, the city’s government wanted to have Africville demolished for industrial development. They responded by making life for the poor people of Africville increasingly difficult by constructing a graveyard near the community with the bodies of diseased men that died during WWII. The city also created a toxic waste dump just outside of the Africville settlement as well.11 Eddie Carvery, a former resident of Africville who’s been living in a protest trailer outside of the former settlement for 44 years, has been trying to get the city’s government to take full responsibility for the Africville incident and compensate survivors. Eddie wants to see former members of the community receive compensation for the Industry that the demolishment of their homes produced. He also wants to see the settlement of Africville reconstructed for those who would want to see it return and an investigation established on how extermination chemicals used near the dump to get rid of rats impacted the residents.12 The rats were so prolific at the dump that Eddie estimates that there had to be 100,000 at a time. If you decided to shine your flashlight at night, you would see the dump come to life with rats. Eddie elaborated on how the hospitals would throw discarded body parts and blankets into the dump and how it was burned continuously.

Africville, Nova Scotia

He also described how the dump was burned every few days and there would be thick layers of smoke that the residents would be exposed to.13

In 1964 the city voted to demolish Africville and relocate the inhabitants deeper into the city on the grounds of human rights and that the community would live better lives. The human rights board that handled the Africville incident did not even contact 80% of the citizens in Africville to ask their opinions on the matter.14 Many homes began to be torn down and people relocated. Often those that refused to leave were coerced into doing so with threats of fines and imprisonment. People were also bribed to leave their residences. The last home was destroyed in 1970, dismantling a community of rich Black heritage that stretched back so many years. Former members of the community were not happy with their new housing arrangements as they became wards of the government and dependent on social assistance. Before the demolishing, the community of Africville was completely independent and never depended on the government for anything.15 In 2010 the mayor of Halifax made a public apology for the demolishment of Africville and a settlement was reached. A portion of this settlement was used to recreate the Seaview Baptist church that existed in Africville, and today it is utilized as a museum of Africville’s History. There are many who refuse to accept the public apology made and are still seeking further settlements with the city.16

Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond is featured on our $10 bill today, but how many people know the story of how her action was one of the sparks that led to the Canadian Civil Rights Movement? Viola was an entrepreneur, and she owned a beauty salon, having obtained her education at a beauty school in Montreal because of discriminatory practices in her native province of Nova Scotia. In 1946 she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and sat on the main floor of the building.17 Viola didn’t know that the ground floor was intended to be a seating arrangement for whites and the balcony was reserved for the Blacks. She refused to move from her seat when told by the manager of the establishment, and he called the police. Viola was dragged from the theater and charged. In Canada discriminatory practices were covert and there were no official federal or provincial laws segregating Blacks from Whites. However, businesses established their own “laws” of segregation. Viola’s violation of the segregational practice was covered up with the charge that she was evading taxes, which was only equivalent to one cent.18 It was a little more expensive to sit on the ground floor compared to the balcony. Viola knew she suffered racial injustice and took her case to the supreme court of Nova Scotia for an appeal, but she lost it. Viola also lost her husband and business pushing against this racial injustice, and she died in New York in 1965. In 2010, Viola’s conviction was removed from her criminal record.

Viola Desmond

Today, Viola is remembered through currency and stamps. Viola’s sister Wanda Robson continues to spread Viola’s story and fights for social justice.19



1.Toth, Mel. “How the Black Sleeping Car Porters Shaped Canada.” Cranbrook History Centre. Accessed March 13, 2021.

2. Toth, Mel. “How the Black Sleeping Car Porters”

3. Tomchuk, Travis. “Black Sleeping Car Porters The Struggle for Black Labor Rights on Canada’s Railways.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Accessed March 17, 2021.

4-8.Tomchuk, Travis. “Black Sleeping Car Porters The Struggle for Black Labor Rights.”

9. McRae, Matthew. “The Story of Africville.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Accessed March 18, 2021.

10. Mcrae, Matthew. “The Story of Africville.”

11. Tavlin, Noah. “Africville: Canada’s Secret Racist History.” VICE. Accessed March 18, 2021.

12-13. Tavlin, Noah. “Africville: Canada’s Secret.”

14-13. Mcrae, Matthew. “The Story of Africville.”

17. “One Woman’s Resistance.” CMHR. Accessed March 18, 2021.

18-19. “One Woman’s Resistance.”

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McRae, Matthew. “The Story of Africville.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Accessed March 18, 2021.

“One Woman’s Resistance.” CMHR. Accessed March 18, 2021.

Tavlin, Noah. “Africville: Canada’s Secret Racist History.” VICE. Accessed March 18, 2021.

Tomchuk, Travis. “Black Sleeping Car Porters The Struggle for Black Labor Rights on Canada’s Railways.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Accessed March 17, 2021.

Toth, Mel. “How the Black Sleeping Car Porters Shaped Canada.” Cranbrook History Centre. Accessed March 13, 2021.

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