Cecil Foster has told the stories of Canada in just about every format that exists. He’s been a journalist in both print and radio, as well as a professor, an essayist and a novelist. An immigrant who came to Toronto from Barbados, in the early days of Canada’s official foray into multiculturalism, Foster had the courage to examine the realities of race in this country long before it was commonplace to do so: In 1996, A Place Called Heaven took a long look at whether Canada had lived up to the idea of a peaceable kingdom imagined by black immigrants from the time of the Underground Railroad to the late 20th century.
His most recent work focuses on one of the many black Canadian stories that are suspiciously absent from most history books. It’s all there in the title – They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. After Indigenous displacement and Chinese labour allowed a shiny new railway to link a newly formed Canada, black men denied other employment options rode them from coast to coast. These sleeping car porters spent weeks away from home tending to riders on Canada’s new trains, often for no wages other than tips. Most passengers declined to learn their names, simply calling them all “George.”
When white unions refused to allow black workers into their ranks, the porters formed their own organizations to demand respect for their labour. These organizations then advocated for black people who wanted to be joined by friends and family members, eventually forcing the relaxation of racist immigration laws. In Foster’s view, Canadian multiculturalism rests on the shoulders of the sleeping car porters. He spoke with the Globe about his passion for documenting their lives, and the ongoing need to reconsider Canadian history.
Why did you decide this is a topic that you wanted to write a whole book on?
There’s very little in Canada about the people who work on the trains, although there’s a lot about the trains. The more I dug into the matter, the more I discovered this amazing story about the time when the only people who worked as sleeping-car porters were black people, and the harsh life that they encountered. I became fascinated by how these men banded together and really changed Canada.
The sleeping-car porters challenged the limitations on immigration to Canada, specifically from the West Indies. I never knew that there was a push to include the British West Indies in Canada dating back to at least Confederation.
Remember, there were very strong links between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the West Indies and the trade that went on between those ports. The idea was that all of these possessions would come together under the single flag, obviously in opposition to the Americans. But Canada always balked at the idea. It could not get over the notion that Canadians cannot be black.
Strong lobbying went on until well into the 1950s and the 60s. But the idea that the West Indies were primarily black, or black and Indian, worked against it. They never fulfilled that dream, from about 1776, that all of these possessions should be under one British flag. One interesting book on the topic is Canadian-West Indian Union: A Forty-Year Minuet by Robin W. Winks.
Do you have other recommendations for people who want to learn more about black history in Canada?
Well, there’s other stuff that I have written. I really strongly would recommend Austin Clarke’s Toronto trilogy. Austin’s trilogy was set in about the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It tells the story of what happened once these porters got the government to allow black women [into Canada].
Canada opened its doors to West Indians by bringing in West Indian women as domestic workers. So Austin Clarke's trilogy tells the story of how those women came and really struggled. It gives a different dimension to the narrative of what is Canadian literature.
Part of what Black History Month is about, I think, is reframing what we’ve been told. For example, the Black Loyalists: When I went to school, the story was that they wanted to come here during the war with the Americans because of their deep love for the British Crown.
I felt so silly when I first heard it presented a different way – those people did not want to be enslaved any longer, and the Crown promised them freedom. That’s why they came. It’s so obvious. And yet that framing has lasted for 150 years.
That's what I hope that this book would do, challenge some of that framing, to say, look, here's another perspective. Here's another way of viewing of how Canada arrived at what it is today.
One of the things that [the sleeping-car porters] had to deal with was that they were never considered to be genuine Canadians. That is a legacy that many of us face today and that our kids have to face. Even though the demography has changed significantly, there’s still the question of who really is a Canadian.
It’s increasingly becoming an unpleasant issue, with the emergence of Maxime Bernier’s party, or some of the messages that the federal Conservative party conveys about immigrants.
Exactly. And that's why we need to tell these stories, to remind Bernier and remind [Andrew] Scheer and others that what they are presenting as the true Canada is not really the full story of Canada. I’m presenting an unromanticized story of Canada. Blacks have always been part of the Canadian story, but Canada did not always recognize the contributions that blacks have made.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of academic stuff right now that would bore your readers. Esi Edugyan’s book Washington Black is on my bookshelf. I have identified that as the book that I really want to be engaged with next.
Did you have any challenges putting this together?
Sometimes you have one shot at telling a story and you try to cover so much. The book could easily have been broken down into several different books.
I can see, for example, writing on the relationship between blacks and the Jewish community. Sometimes we tend to forget that there was a very strong relationship between the various smaller communities, the Jewish community, the Chinese communities, the black communities. Back in the 1950s and beyond they formed clear bonds where they rallied together. That is a story that I think is really worth telling on its own.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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