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Once, a black work force kept rail travel running smoothly in Canada – and they paved the way for racial justice and economic opportunity for all. How can we remember their sacrifices?

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Black Canadian sleeping-car porters shown in the 1950s. Train porter was once a job reserved for a black work force, and many porters became activists for more employment opportunities in other fields.CN Images of Canada Collection, Canada Science and Technology Museum

Cecil Foster is an author, journalist and academic whose books include A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity and Independence, a novel. His latest book is They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada, from which this essay is adapted.

I was on my way to Windsor, Ont., on Via Rail Train 75, late last summer. A female voice, flawlessly bilingual in English and French, welcomed everybody on board. Everything seemed so routine. Settling into my aisle seat near the front of the car, I cracked open a book to help me get through the five-hour trip.

“Tickets, please,” a gentle voice said over my head. I looked up to see a young woman with long, flowing black braids cascading down past her shoulders. She was dressed in a navy uniform with an open-neck polo-shirt, the corporate logo on her blazer, and she was smiling at me, the mile-wide smile historically associated with her job.

“Well, look at that,” I said. “A black train porter.” Realizing how strange that statement must have sounded in our multicultural, diverse and inclusive Canada, I felt compelled to explain why I was remarking on the obvious. “Do you know that I’ve been travelling a lot on the train in Canada and you are the first black porter I’ve seen?”

Train porter was once a job reserved exclusively for black workers. I had recently been speaking to former train porters, and the old timers were the first to draw this to my attention. You can hardly find any black porters these days, they said wistfully. Nothing in my train travels had proven them wrong. Until now.

“No, man,” she said, laughing, “there are others.”

“And you’re a woman, too,” I said.

She laughed again.

“Do you know there was a time when the only porters you’d find on trains in Canada and the United States were black men?” I asked her. “It was the only job they could get in Canada and the United States. Those porters fought to change all that so that black workers could have greater employment opportunities.”

She did not know any of this. The quizzical look remained on her face as she waited for me to produce my ticket. I thought about the time, three years earlier, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked why he wanted gender parity in his cabinet and he replied simply, “Because it is 2015!” thereby ending the conversation. Canada has evolved over time, so now issues such as gender – and presumably race, ethnicity and religion, too – do not matter in daily life. Or so was the implication in his statement.

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Two black sleeping-car porters stand alongside Montreal mayor Camillien Houde, wearing his chain of office, and Sir Vere Brabazon Ponsonby, ninth Earl of Bessborough, in 1930.McCord Museum

At that point my wife, Sharon, who was sitting next to me, entered the conversation and explained to the young woman that I was an author and professor and that my research into a book about the history of black train porters in Canada was the very reason we were on the train.

‘My name is Rokhaya Ndiaye,” she answered when I asked. “I am Senegalese.”

“And that’s another thing!” I blurted out. “It was the train porters who made it possible for people like you and me to be in this country. Indeed, they forced Canada to open up immigration to people from all parts of the world, including Africa and Asia.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding genuinely interested in the discussion, “I must find out more about that.”

After saying she was happy to have met me, she zapped the ticket barcode on my phone with a handheld machine and posted two white card strips on the luggage bin above our heads. She had a carload of other passengers waiting for her attention and could linger no more. She handed me her business card – which identified her as a manager in “customer experience,” not a “train porter” – and we promised to continue the conversation at another time.

As I travelled on the train, I thought of all the train porters who came before Rokhaya Ndiaye and left a legacy of social change in Canada as part of the civil-rights movement – and indeed the entire black experience in the Americas and beyond.

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Stanley Grizzle, shown in 2007, is a retired citizenship-court judge, activist and former sleeping-car porter.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

Nobody, though, is more deserving of recognition than Stanley Grizzle.

Following the Second World War, Mr. Grizzle and his fellow porters fought to create a new Canada by embodying a citizenship that reflected the diversity and dignity of humanity itself. They battled to normalize what is now routine, and even taken for granted, in our daily living: Black workers holding a wide range of jobs, including civil-service positions, and black people from Africa and the West Indies immigrating and becoming citizens of Canada.

We should always remember this was not a fight they were sure to win. We should also not forget that Canada wasn’t originally intended to be a multicultural society. Official multiculturalism was a fluke of history, and some thought of it as democracy gone wrong. Against great odds, the sleeping car porters sacrificed themselves and all they had, figuratively speaking, to put a stick in the wheels of a Canada headed in a different direction. The train porters turned Canada black, brown and a host of other shades. Yet this important piece of Canadian history has yet to be fully told.

The last time I saw Mr. Grizzle, he was standing in the mid-afternoon sun at the corner of Toronto’s Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West, a few years before his death in 2016, at the age of 97.

“There’s Stan waiting for a bus,” I said to my wife, who was beside me in the car. “Let’s give him a lift.”

I pulled up to the bus stop. “Stan, where are you going?” I called to him.

The tall, slim man, his age showing in the slight droop of his shoulders, seemed momentarily surprised that someone was calling to him from a car. Under his broad-brim hat, his eyes flitted around until he recognized me. He smiled.

“I’m going home,” he said.

“Get in,” I replied. “We’ll give you a ride.”

In the car, we chatted generally – about nothing of consequence that I can recall. A few blocks on, we arrived near the Bathurst Street subway station, where he would have gotten off had he taken the bus. “I’ll walk in from here,” he said.

“No, man,” I replied. “We’ll take you right home.” Guided by his back-seat directions, we meandered through side streets in the Bloor and Bathurst area – historically one of the main neighbourhoods where black people lived in Toronto – until we arrived at a detached home with a verandah, on a tree-lined street.

At that time, I thought I knew Stanley Grizzle. I’d seen him around the black and Caribbean communities at major Toronto events. He was that kind of a presence: a respected community leader and activist who led protest demonstrations in the name of social justice at home and abroad; a speaker at Black History Month events; a celebrated and popular citizenship judge; and a champion of the successes and individual achievements of black Canadians.

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Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

I first met him in the 1970s, when I was the editor of Contrast, a newspaper that represented and often spoke to, and for, the black community in Canada. Mr. Grizzle was one of the community regulars who would drop by the newspaper’s office. Often he came with a letter or a commentary on some issue of the day that he wanted published. I knew that he was one of the first black men to run, if unsuccessfully, for political office in Ontario, but by the 1970s, he practised his politics mainly as a community activist.

I also knew him to be an avid reader who attended some of the Toronto launches of my books and who, for the price of a signed book, generously supported me with his purchases, as he did for just about every black writer trying to gain recognition in Canada. He liked following the careers of black Canadians in arts, politics, media and theatre – those who, in his youth, would have been called Proud Race Men and Women for their pioneering work in breaking into the Canadian mainstream and keeping a positive racial presence there. He collected scraps of news – and sometimes entire publications – about black achievement, compiling an extensive collection that I happened upon when going through his numerous boxes of personal papers, now held at Archives Canada in Ottawa.

What a treasure trove he collected on the black experience worldwide, but most notably in Canada and the United States. To my surprise, I happened upon several articles about myself as a news reporter and writer, along with entries on other prominent black Canadians – writers such as Austin Clarke and several others who were “firsts” in their fields or who were breaking social and racial barriers. It was obvious Mr. Grizzle collected with an eye to educating future generations about what it was like for black people such as him in North America generally but specifically in Canada in the first seven decades of the 20th century. In his records, he presented Black Canada in relationship with what was happening in the Caribbean – or, more specifically, the British West Indies – and in Europe, Africa and all those former possessions linked around the globe by colonialism. Once categorized as members of the British Empire, they were now known as the British Commonwealth. He was an original Pan-Africanist in orientation.

Why don’t we know more about the struggle of black men and women who fought Jim Crow laws and political policies so they could be recognized, not only as humans, but as full citizens of Canada? Why are their achievements in community- and nation-building often absent, or erased, from official narratives? Why is it not understood that Canada officially became a multicultural country because – yes, it’s worth repeating – because of the pioneering work of the railway porters and the still-not-fulfilled dreams of black people such as Mr. Grizzle, who at one time were only allowed to hold jobs as sleeping car porters, if they were men, and in-home domestics, if they were women? Why are these black activists not celebrated or fully recognized for taking Canada off the bankrupting path of trying to be an exclusive, and racist, country for white people? Why are these stories of Canadian blackness still not told, even in this moment of multicultural awareness and racial, ethnic and cultural reconciliation?

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Train porters in 1951. From left: R. Coker, W.L. Holmes, E.D.J. Bartholemew, W.T. Fraser, C.B. States and C.D. Frazier.CN Collection / Canada Science and Technology Museum

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