They Call me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
By Cecil Foster
How Black Train Porters helped to build modern Canada
By W. Andy Knight
Typical of books written by the evocative Bajan-Canadian author, Cecil Foster, once you pick up They Call me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada you just cannot put it down. Every Canadian of every ethnicity and walk of life should read this wonderful account of how Negroes, many of them from British colonies in the Caribbean, helped to create the Canada that we have come to recognize as tolerant and inclusive. But, as Foster lets us know in no uncertain terms, it was not always that way in the Dominion of Canada. That Dominion was in fact racist at its very core – “the premiere White Man’s Country”.
Black train porters, as Foster painfully and meticulously unearths, suffered the indignities of this racism, and mostly in silence. Catering to primarily white passengers on the transcontinental railway, these predominantly black men, several of them immigrants to Canada, were always “smartly dressed” and “smiling” as they serviced the trains’ popular sleeping cars almost in an unobtrusive manner. As Foster puts it: for the most part, “…Black train porters were politically invisible, remaining outside the social imagination of those considered ‘Canadians’.” They were “like the old adage about children, to be seen but not heard; they were not to speak unless spoken to.” In fact, black porters, even when sleep-deprived, would have to maintain the presence of mind to make sure that white passengers did not miss their stop or leave luggage or other valuables behind on the cross-country trains.
They call me George is a riveting, tour de force written by an award winning, master story-teller who entertains while he teaches. His book grapples with the historical, and not always pretty, legacy of Canada and with the decisions made by key policymakers as they tried to develop the country’s role and purpose in the world. But his epistemological focus is on discovering the role that Black people have played in creating Canada. In some ways, his approach reminds me of another very elegant and influential writer, the late Fil Fraser, whose book published in 2009 by Dragon Hill Publishing Ltd., provided us with an abject lesson — 400 years of remarkable stories — of How Blacks Created Canada. Both authors, Fil Fraser and Cecil Foster, have a knack for mesmeric story telling that focuses on “people without history” whose contributions to Canada would otherwise not be known.
What we learn from Foster, in what he calls his “speakerly book, is the art of letting “the combatants” reveal themselves in their own words, as much as possible. As he puts it: “by minimizing the paraphrasing of their words I will not appear to be coaching them or putting words in their mouths.” Indeed, “it is through their own words that readers will understand what drove the people in the book to make the decisions they did …” And this applies not only to the Black Porters, but also to the politicians whose decisions at the time could be considered “wrong” and even “immoral”. Take the case of the historical figure of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. Foster exposes the declaratory statements of this Canadian PM whose decisions were clearly aimed at making Canada “a country for white people only.” One gets the sense that Wilfrid Laurier was a white supremacist who, like his good friend south of the border – Woodrow Wilson, entrenched segregation practices in Canada – “using the government-owned railway” as a policy tool. Laurier obviously did not see black people as his social equals and “he was quick to express disdain for them.”
Luckily for us, as we celebrate Black History Month, Laurier’s view of Canada did not prevail. By 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would cement into our repatriated constitution the vision of Canada that many Black porters had fought for – a multicultural society that upholds the rights of all people regardless of colour of skin. It was a vision of Canada based on “the notion of brotherhood”; a dream shared by the sleeping car porters and the members of the Negro Citizenship Association which they spawned. Indeed, the Black porters, many of them of Caribbean heritage, have contributed to a new citizenship, a new multicultural mosaic, a new Canada in which all its people of every colour, ethnicity, sex, ability and creed, can truly call their home and native land.
In They call me George, Cecil Foster attributes the creation and survival of the Canadian nation-state in part to those Black sleeping car porters and their allies who successfully placed the experiment that eventually became Canada on “a very different track”. Those pioneering Black porters challenged Canada to become what it has become today – “both modern and different”. They took us thankfully to places that Canadians “would otherwise never have known.” To them, we owe a great debt of gratitude.
So Black History Month is the most propitious time to pick up a copy of Cecil Foster’s gripping narrative, to sit back and imagine those Black Train Porters shouting “All Aboard”. You are in for a great ride.
(Dr. W. Andy Knight is a Barbados-born Professor of International Relations at the University of Alberta and former Director of the Institute of International Relations at The University of the West Indies.)