Railway sleeping cars were introduced to Canada in the 1870s by the Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman built and operated luxury passenger rail cars equipped with seating areas that converted into bunk beds; the seats were converted into the lower berth and the upper berth was pulled down from the ceiling. Pullman cars were known for their accommodations, comfort, and the service provided by the porters.
The railways were one of the few Canadian companies to hire black men in the early 20th century. It was an opportunity that appealed to many men. There were limitations, however. The railways hired black men solely to be porters, and from the First World War until the 1950s, did not hire or promote black men to the post of engineer, conductor, or any other job on the train.
The porters served the passengers during their trip; they would help with boarding and disembarking, serve drinks and snacks, set up berths, make beds, polish shoes, tend to and entertain small children, and cater to the customers’ needs and wants. The porters were essential to rail travel—they were always present but also pushed to the background.
The men received regular wages, had the opportunity to see Canada and meet travellers. Stanley Grizzle, a former sleeping car porter, states in his autobiography that porters were admired within the black community.
These benefits and rewards came at a cost. Porters worked long hours, often on call for 24 hours with their sleeping accommodations on the train in the men’s smoking room. They were frequently away from home for days at a time. They were also wary of passenger complaints and were often subject to harsh discipline from management. Porters would risk reprisals from passengers when they reported gambling, excessive drinking, or illegal activities.
The porters received demeaning and insulting comments and names from passengers. Stanley Grizzle wrote that passengers would frequently address porters as “George” after George Pullman, the original owner of the Pullman Car Company. The porters were also forced to rely on tips from passengers. While the money was welcome, Stanley Grizzle writes, the act of asking for a tip was demeaning, reinforced subservience, and allowed the company to justify keeping wages low because of the tips.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized in Canada during the Second World War. The union helped to negotiate higher wages, better working (and sleeping) conditions, fairer and more transparent disciplinary measures, and ended racial discrimination in hiring and promotions. Beginning in the 1960s with changes in the travel industry, the railways were employing fewer and fewer sleeping car porters. In 1999, Heritage Canada unveiled a plaque at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, to honour the sleeping car porters.