Census 1931, a peek into digitization

By Melissa Beckett and François Deslauriers

A glimpse into the microfilm room

Two photographs of the Eclipse Rollfilm scanner by nextScan; on the left, a view showing the full scanner, and on the right, a close-up of the reel with some film threading past two of the rollers.

The Eclipse Rollfilm scanner by nextScan. Credit: François Deslauriers

In a dimly lit room, two imaging specialists sit in opposite corners. Each stares at their screen, where a series of images is constantly flowing from one side to the other. The rhythmic mechanical sounds of the microfilm scanners are occasionally interrupted by the high-pitched whine of the rewind, and a clunk as the last of the film winds back around its reel. With white-gloved hands, a specialist removes the reel from her scanner and places it back into its round metallic canister, which she returns to its archival box. She removes the next canister and slices around the taped edge with a pocket knife. She takes out the reel and mounts it on the scanner, winding the film around a series of rollers and then onto another plastic reel.

Meanwhile, the other specialist has stopped the process on his scanner. He needs to readjust some settings because the images in this section of the reel are much brighter than the earlier ones. He adjusts the exposure values in the software until he is satisfied with the appearance of the images in the preview window. The specialist scans a short section of film and opens it in the auditing software to double-check. He views one of the documents at full size, examining it closely. He then rewinds the film to the beginning, starting the scanning process all over again.

The project

For the Census 1931 project, the Digitization Services team digitized 187 microfilm reels, for a total of 234,678 images. At this time, the reels were classified, and a security procedure/protocol had to be followed. “By law, the personal information in this census can only be made public 92 years after the census was completed.” (See Preparing the 1931 Census [canada.ca].) Only “deemed employees” who had taken the Statistics Canada Oath or Affirmation of Office and Secrecy were authorized to view the material. Reels were kept locked in a secure room, and all digitization was performed completely off-line.

The Census 1931 microfilm reels contain about 1200 images of census documents on each reel of 35-mm black-and-white polyester film. The imaging specialist digitizes from the print master, a copy of the archival master reel, in order to prevent any deterioration of the original.

Microfilm is an effective means of preserving information for long periods of time (reels can last for 500 years). Microfilm stores vast quantities of information in a small amount of space and supports preservation of the documents contained by removing the necessity of handling them. Digitizing microfilm reels provides another level of preservation as well as of accessibility to the public, who are then able to view the images from anywhere with an Internet connection.

The scanning process

A photograph of the Eclipse Rollfilm scanner by nextScan, with labelled supply reel, stationary rollers, film guides, camera lens and take-up reel.

The Eclipse Rollfilm scanner by nextScan, with main components labelled. Credit: François Deslauriers

For this project, the digitization of the 1931 Census was performed with the use of the Eclipse Rollfilm scanner by nextScan, a dedicated microfilm scanner designed to digitize both 16-mm and 35-mm reels, in conjunction with an off-network computer. Film is threaded from the supply reel past stationary rollers and film guides to a take-up reel. The pinch rollers lower to hold the film in place on the film guides, automatically adjusting the tension of the film. The film is guided past a macro lens and digital sensor above, while lit from below through the film emulsion by a strip of red light. The reel is digitized as one long, uncompressed, grey-scale image file, referred to as a ribbon.

The imaging specialist handles the film using cotton gloves, being careful to touch the edges only. With the NextStarPLUS® Capture software, the reduction ratio (which is noted on the film and allows images to be reproduced at a 1:1 ratio) must be set, in addition to the resolution, film type (16-mm or 35-mm) and polarity (negative or positive). Before scanning, the specialist must also ensure that the exposure of the images is correct and that the lens is focused so the image is sharp.

With a live view on the screen, the specialist makes adjustments to the exposure and the focus. The specialist may zoom in on a focusing chart, as well as on the manufacturer’s information, printed along the edge of the film at regular intervals. The appearance of scratches or dust on the film can also be useful for determining sharpness. While the documents can be used to focus, this is only reliable if they were originally photographed with perfect sharpness.

A preview window during scanning allows the specialist to see when it is necessary to readjust settings over the course of scanning. When the documents were initially photographed, there may have been changes in lighting and exposure settings over the course of the reel. This results in some images appearing brighter or darker. The goal in digitizing each reel is to ensure that most of the documents will be legible, since adjustments in tonal values can only be made for the entire length of the film and not for each individual document.

After scanning is complete, the specialist rewinds the film and returns the reel to its canister.

A photograph of a 16-mm microfilm reel stacked on top of a 35-mm microfilm reel, next to a loupe, in front of a 35-mm microfilm reel in its canister.

16-mm and 35-mm microfilm reels. Credit: François Deslauriers

The auditing process

After scanning the reels, the imaging specialist uses the NextStarPLUS® Auditor software to process the ribbons (the long image files associated with each reel). The software is used to detect and select each individual document within the ribbon so that they can be exported as separate image files. According to its detection settings, the software generates coloured rectangles around the documents. The specialist scrolls past rows of documents to select those that were not detected by the software and to adjust any rectangles that do not contain the whole document. On a second scroll through, a blackout setting changes the contents of the rectangles to black. This leaves any unselected white parts visible, making it easier to spot anything that may have been missed on the first pass, for additional quality control.

Each digitized document in the census is assigned an e-number, a unique identifying number used in this project to sort the images by place.

The images were initially exported as 10-megabyte TIFF files. TIFF is a “lossless” file format, meaning that there is no image compression. For the purposes of the project, JPEG derivatives (a “lossy” file format that requires less storage space and is more accessible) were created to aid in matching the digitized images to the census geographic districts and sub-districts, as well as for external partners working in artificial intelligence (AI). Information Technology created a script to efficiently turn the TIFF files into JPEGs.

Yesterday and tomorrow

Working in digitization at Library and Archives Canada means constantly improving processes and exploring new techniques and technology, to create the best-quality images possible. The 1931 Census was no different. As imaging specialists, we have been glad to play a small part in keeping Canada’s history alive and making it accessible to the public.

Melissa Beckett is an acting Imaging Specialist in the Digitization Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

François Deslauriers is an acting Manager of Reprography in the Digitization Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Chinese Canadian Genealogy: General Registers and C.I.9 certificates

By Valerie Casbourn

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic or cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

Chinese Canadian genealogy research can draw on many different historical records and resources. Two important sets of records are the General Registers of Chinese Immigration and Chinese Immigration (C.I.) 9 certificates. These records can provide a wealth of genealogical information, and they can be searched in Library and Archives Canada’s Immigrants from China, 1885–1949 database. The help page includes descriptions of these records and others indexed in the database and instructions for searching.

These records were created because of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. This discriminatory legislation was passed by the federal government to restrict immigration from China to Canada. It was the first law in Canada to restrict immigration on the basis of ethnic origin. The legislation required the registration of everyone who immigrated from China to Canada. It also imposed a duty of $50, known as the head tax, to be paid by each Chinese immigrant arriving in Canada, with some exceptions. The amount was increased to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 in 1903. The legislation was later replaced by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which abolished the head tax but almost completely stopped Chinese immigration to Canada. It was not repealed until 1947.

A complex record-keeping system of registers and C.I. certificates was established in 1885, and more certificates were added in subsequent years. This system was gradually phased out between 1947 and 1953, after the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed.

General Registers of Chinese Immigration

The General Registers of Chinese Immigration were maintained by the office of the Chief Controller of Chinese Immigration, located in Ottawa. The registers were intended to record every Chinese person who immigrated to Canada between 1885 and 1949. There are also entries for some individuals who arrived as early as 1860. The registers are in rough chronological order, based on the date of arrival.

The entries in the register can tell you when each individual immigrated to Canada, their age at the time, their place of birth in China, their occupation and the details of their arrival. The General Registers are also a record of payment of the head tax and show the amount paid by each person (if applicable) and any landing certificates issued.

The most well known of these certificates is the C.I.5, also known as the “head tax certificate.” The C.I.5 was issued to confirm payment of the head tax, and most were retained by the individuals who received them. The first version of the C.I.5 was introduced in 1885, and it was issued until 1912 when it was replaced by a new version that included a photograph of the individual.

Black-and-white page from the General Register of Chinese Immigration. The page shows a table with 25 rows of handwritten entries for individuals who arrived in Canada in May 1899.

General Register of Chinese Immigration, RG76, Volume 700 (e006066717)
This page shows entries for people who arrived in Canada in 1899.

The fourth line on the General Register page pictured above is the entry for Jung Hang, who arrived in Vancouver, B.C., in May 1899 on the ship S.S. Empress of India. Passenger lists also record people arriving in Canada by ship, but there are no passenger lists for arrivals in British Columbia before 1905. If you are researching someone who immigrated from China before that date, you may find details of their arrival in the General Register.

Jung Hang’s entry in the General Register says that he was 25 years old when he arrived in 1899, which means he was born in approximately 1874. His place of birth is recorded as Ling Chung, Senway, China.

The register entry also shows that C.I.5 certificate no. 23333 was issued to Jung Hang and that he paid the required duty fee of $50, which was the amount of the head tax at the time.

Chinese Immigration 9 certificates

Between 1885 and 1947, every Chinese person in Canada was required to register with immigration authorities before leaving the country temporarily. The practice continued for several years after the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, not ending until 1953. The C.I.9 certificates were outward registration records that documented each person’s departure and return and also included personal details valuable for genealogy. The C.I.9 certificates from Vancouver and Victoria contain, with some exceptions, the certificates issued between 1910 and 1953. The C.I.9 certificates on microfilm reels T-6038 to T-6052 are indexed in the Immigrants from China, 1885-1949 database. These reels contain C.I.9 certificates issued at the ports of Vancouver and Victoria between 1910 and 1920 to individuals who were born abroad and between 1913 and 1952 to individuals born in Canada.

In addition to details about travel, the certificates include the individual’s name (and a second version of their name, if applicable) and their age and place of birth. They also list the person’s occupation and place of residence in Canada. For those who immigrated to Canada, the certificates list the year they first arrived in Canada. There is also a photograph of the individual and their signature in Chinese characters.

Black-and-white copy of a C.I.9 with typewritten text and handwritten annotations and signatures. There is a photograph of a young girl, her signature in Chinese characters and a stamp from the port of Vancouver, B.C.

C.I.9 certificate no. 146 issued for Wong Yat Shun, 1919, RG76, Microfilm reel T-6052 (e008280743)

This C.I. 9 certificate was issued for Wong Yat Shun on April 30, 1919, and shows that she was sailing from Vancouver to Hong Kong on the ship S.S. Empress of Asia, departing on May 1, 1919. The section at the bottom of the page has a stamp from the port of Vancouver, B.C., that shows she returned on July 19, 1920, on the S.S. Empress of Russia.

The personal details included in the certificate tell us that Wong Yat Shun was born in 1907 in Ladner, B.C., and that she was 12 years old and still lived in Ladner when the certificate was issued.

More resources for Chinese Canadian genealogy

Consult our Chinese Canadians page for more resources for genealogy and family history research, including census records, immigration records, citizenship and naturalization records and published sources.

Valerie Casbourn is an archivist at the Halifax office of Library and Archives Canada.

A stone across the pond

By Forrest Pass

Canada has plenty of rocks of our own, but a British stone has long captured the imagination of people on this side of the Atlantic. If you watched the coverage of the coronation of King Charles III, you might have caught a glimpse of it. Known variously as the Coronation Stone, the Stone of Scone, and the Stone of Destiny, the unassuming oblong block of red sandstone enclosed in a wooden throne has been a central feature of British coronation rituals for almost a thousand years.

The Coronation Stone originated in Scotland, where monarchs were crowned upon it for hundreds of years. Although folklore associates the Stone with the legendary High Kings of Ireland and even with the “Stone of Jacob” in the biblical Book of Genesis, geological analysis suggests that it was quarried near Scone, around Perth in eastern Scotland. The forces of King Edward I of England took the Stone as war booty in 1296, and for 700 years it remained at Westminster Abbey, a fixture of English and later British coronations. In 1996, it returned to Scotland, where Edinburgh Castle is now the Stone’s permanent home. However, the 66 cm by 41 cm by 28 cm rock, which weighs 152 kg, travelled temporarily to London this month for the latest coronation.

Drawing of the Coronation Chair and Stone.

Drawing of the Coronation Chair and Stone by celebrated Canadian historical illustrator C.W. Jefferys, about 1929. Library and Archives Canada holds this original drawing, which Jefferys prepared for a school history textbook, Britain’s History, by University of Toronto historian George M. Wrong (e011408968-001)

Although the Coronation Stone has never travelled to Canada, Canada and Canadians have played a part in its story. In 1939, Paul de Labillière, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, where the Stone was kept from 1296 until 1996, quietly hid the Stone in the Abbey’s crypt, to protect it from desecration in the event of a feared Nazi invasion. He drew a map of its exact hiding place and sent the sole copy to Ottawa, where it remained under lock and key at the Bank of Canada. After the war, our predecessor, the Public Archives of Canada, acquired the map. It is now part of Unexpected! Surprising Treasures From Library and Archives Canada, our exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History until November 26, 2023.

Map showing the wartime hiding place of the Coronation Stone in the crypt beneath Westminster Abbey’s Islip Chapel.

Dean Paul de Labillière’s map showing the wartime hiding place of the Coronation Stone in the crypt beneath Westminster Abbey’s Islip Chapel. This map was kept in a sealed envelope locked in a Bank of Canada vault during the Second World War. It was supposed to be released only to the Prime Minister of Canada, the British High Commissioner or the Dean of Westminster Abbey (e011309358)

De Labillière could not have predicted that the greatest “threat” to the Coronation Stone would be a domestic one. On Christmas Day 1950, young Scottish nationalists “liberated” the Stone from Westminster Abbey and transported it to Arbroath Abbey in eastern Scotland, a symbolic site for their movement. It took four months before police recovered the Stone and returned it to Westminster.

Two years after the Coronation Stone heist, a young woman from Cape Breton Island made a pilgrimage to Arbroath Abbey and met with the original conspirators. She admired their devotion to the cause of Scottish independence, even if she thought that their revolutionary plotting was mere bravado. “No doubt, if I had been born in Scotland, I would have been a passionate Scottish nationalist like [Coronation Stone liberator] Ian Hamilton,” Flora MacDonald wrote of the meeting in her memoirs. “Instead, I am convinced it was my Scottish blood and temperament that made me a passionate Canadian nationalist.” MacDonald would channel that love of Canada into politics; in 1979, she became the first woman to serve as Secretary of State for External Affairs. Her remarkable life and career are documented in the extensive Flora MacDonald fonds at Library and Archives Canada, which includes a diary of her first trip to Scotland.

Flora MacDonald was not the first Canadian to travel to the United Kingdom in search of the Coronation Stone’s meaning. In 1921, Edward Odlum, an eccentric Vancouverite, went to London to examine the Stone’s composition. Odlum was a believer in British Israelism, the theory that Britons are the literal, genetic descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. At best, British Israelism relied on shaky pseudoscience; at worst, it promoted antisemitism and white supremacy. Odlum, who had some geological training, hoped to link the Coronation Stone to the Middle East, and thus support the British-Israelite case.

Odlum enlisted high-level help for his peculiar project. Sir George Halsey Perley, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, convinced the Dean of Westminster Abbey to give Odlum privileged access to the Stone. Odlum’s letters to his son, the journalist, soldier and future diplomat Victor Wentworth Odlum, describe his examination of the Stone with a magnifying glass and “a specially prepared large electric light.” This study complete, he dashed off to Jerusalem to look for similar rocks in the Holy Land. Professional geological analysis of the Stone confirms that it originated in Scotland, but claims that Odlum had “proven” its Middle Eastern origin still circulate in obscure corners of the Internet.

Letter with the header “The British Israel Association of Canada,” written by Edward Odlum to his son, Victor Wentworth Odlum.

In this letter to his son, Victor Wentworth Odlum, Edward Odlum describes the assistance rendered by Canadian High Commissioner Sir George Halsey Perley in securing access to the Coronation Stone (MIKAN 118465)

As travelling overseas to view the Coronation Chair and Stone was not possible for most Canadians, two benefactors commissioned replicas for display closer to home. John Ross Robertson, a Toronto-based journalist and Canadiana collector, exhibited his replica, alongside other historical chairs, at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1904. Robertson boasted in the exhibition catalogue that the reproduction was so good that “if placed beside the original it would be impossible to tell it from the genuine chair.”

A page from a catalogue featuring a drawing of the Coronation Chair of Great Britain.

The catalogue for John Ross Robertson’s 1904 exhibition of historic chairs, which featured his replica of the Coronation Chair and Stone (OCLC 62994338)

A second replica of the Coronation Chair made its way to Ontario at the same time as Robertson’s. Its owner was Dr. Oronhyatekha, the famous Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) physician, who had a long-standing connection with the Royal Family. In 1860, as a young man, Oronhyatekha had addressed the visiting Prince of Wales on behalf of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and emphasized the importance of the living treaty relationship. Decades later, in 1902, Oronhyatekha travelled to London to attend the coronation of his old acquaintance as King Edward VII. He later joked that his replica of the Coronation Chair was a spare given to him by the Royal Family. According to Keith Jamieson and Michelle A. Hamilton, authors of Dr. Oronhyatekha: Security, Justice, and Equality, the Coronation Chair represented for Oronhyatekha the special relationship between the Crown and First Nations.

Medallion of a right-side profile of Dr. Oronhyatekha including an image of the Temple Building in Toronto.

A 1904 medallion of Dr. Oronhyatekha featuring, to the right of his nose, an image of the Temple Building, headquarters of the Independent Order of Foresters, which Oronhyatekha headed. The Temple Building, Toronto’s first skyscraper, also housed Oronhyatekha’s historical collection, including his replica of the Coronation Chair and Stone (e011086464)

Photo of Dr. Oronhyatekha’s replica of the Coronation Chair and Stone on display at the Foresters’ Home.

Dr. Oronhyatekha’s replica of the Coronation Chair and Stone on display at the Foresters’ Home, an orphanage in Deseronto, Ontario, before it was moved to the Foresters’ Temple Building in Toronto (Town of Deseronto Archives via Flickr)

Canadians from a variety of backgrounds have given the Coronation Stone new meanings that the Scottish quarrymen who hewed it would never have predicted. Perhaps the Stone’s very modesty explains its appeal. Amid the colour and finery of other coronation regalia, it seems extraordinarily ordinary, and in its simplicity lies its flexibility. In Canada, where bedrock is seldom far from the surface, people have embraced this ancient British artifact, reimagining a seemingly simple stone as a compelling emblem of history, identity and sovereignty.

Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

Why we are excited about the 1931 Census

By Sara Chatfield

Welcome to Library and Archives Canada’s blog series on the 1931 Census! This was the seventh census in Canadian history. The release of the 1931 Census records is an excellent opportunity to learn more about ourselves as a country. The lives of over 10 million people who were living in Canada in 1931 will be unveiled very soon. By law, personal information in a census cannot be made public until 92 years after the census was completed. We have been waiting a long time for this, and the date of the release is fast approaching.

A typed page with the words “Dominion Bureau of Statistics” and “Canada” written at the top, a crest, and a stamp with an x over it.

The cover page of the official publication of the Seventh Census of Canada, 1931 (OCLC 796971519)

There are quite a few steps that must be completed to provide the 234,678 images of the 1931 Census online. These are briefly mentioned in Preparing the 1931 Census. This blog series will fill in some of the blanks and help in bringing the census to life. It will answer questions about how the census was compiled, the questions that were asked, how we are making it available, and other topics that will widen our collective appreciation of just how important censuses are to present and future generations.

Census returns are extremely valuable research tools for genealogists, historians, scholars and all Canadians who want to explore the past. The original purpose of the census was to help determine parliamentary representation based on population. But censuses are so much more than that! These documents provide information about the makeup of Canada, the history of Canadian families and societal changes that were happening at the time.

A census entry for a household is a snapshot into Canadians’ lives in that era. Each page tells two stories. First, it tells the story of a family: their names, ages, religion and other elements of their identity. Second, the entry gives the context of their story within Canada: their neighbours, home, occupation, employment status and community. The 1931 Census delves into not only where people lived, but also how: in homes with extended families, within their immigrant communities, in rooming houses, and in institutions.

A map of Canada showing different-sized black dots.

A map from the administrative report of the Seventh Census of Canada, 1931 (OCLC 1007482727)

Even if you have not been bitten by the genealogy bug, the 1931 Census can still be of interest. You can learn more about your city or province, such as the industries or patterns of employment in given areas. Census returns can even help researchers to find more information about particular communities. They can give us hints about who lived at an address and when, and provide some information about their circumstances, including whether they spoke English or French, could read and write, or went to school. The 1931 Census also asked a new question: “Has this family a radio?” This will be fascinating to those who are interested in the emergence of telecommunications in Canada. It is also a measure of how quickly and broadly information could be disseminated. You can witness the early days of a new form of popular culture on the rise. Exciting, right?

We suspect that there will be many prominent Canadians in this census. But we will not know for sure until we have the completed index. Later this year, when the index is released, you will be able to search by name for people such as labour union activist and citizenship judge Stanley Grizzle, Kanien’kehá:ka activist Mary Two-Axe Earley, actors William Shatner and Gordon Pinsent, artist Pauline Julien, singer La Bolduc, painter Kazuo Nakamura, and Black activist Viola Desmond. You may be able to learn more about their early lives!

Join us in our journey to learn what Canadian households looked like on Monday, June 1, 1931!

And stay tuned for upcoming blog posts about this significant census release.

Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Client Services division at Library and Archives Canada.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

By Stacey Zembrzycki

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

Stanley Grizzle, citizenship judge, politician, civil servant, labour union activist, and porter of twenty years, travelled across the country in the late 1980s documenting the experiences of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) sleeping car porters and their struggle to unionize. His questions about the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) always went hand in hand with those that documented the important role played by Black women in the BSCP’s Ladies’ Auxiliary.

Ten members of the Toronto Pullman Division’s Ladies Auxiliary posing for a photo.

Ladies Auxiliary, Toronto Pullman Division, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (e011181016)

While documenting the male “stalwarts,” as he called them, Grizzle was careful to ask about the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, who often lingered in this movement’s background, as well as in the background during these recorded sessions. The Stanley Grizzle Interview Collection thereby provides important gendered and generational perspectives into the forces that made unionization possible in Black communities across Canada. It also shows how involvement in the BSCP and its Ladies’ Auxiliary tended to serve as starting points for community mobilization around a broad array of issues and training grounds for community leaders.

Union leaders, inspired by A. Philip Randolph, an American labour unionist and civil rights activist as well as the organizer of the BSCP in the United States, recognized early on that women had integral roles to play in founding and sustaining this union movement. As Essex Silas Richard “Dick” Bellamy recalled:

I shall never forget when Brother Randolph came to Calgary, and Brother Benny Smith, he says, “There is no organization [that] will ever be successful unless the ladies are permitted into that organization.” And I have never forgotten, and I don’t believe you can find very many organizations [where] the ladies are…are not affiliated with the men in these various organizations. They seem to be able to give the men, uh-uh, a little more incentive to…in, in order to help them out. (Interview 417401)

Frank Collins succinctly echoed this sentiment: “…[You] had to have the women behind you before you had a strong union because, if you didn’t have them working with you, you were nowhere.” (Interview 417402)

Women’s solidarity was deeply rooted in the realities of the job. Being a porter required men to be on the road for as long as a month at a time. In their absence, porters’ wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters played principal roles, moving throughout their Black communities to encourage and promote the creation of the BSCP among both men and women, actively recruit and “card” porters at their local train stations and in their churches and community organizations, and, once the union was created, collect union joining fees and dues. Like other women, Velma Coward King, who was active in the Montreal BSCP Ladies’ Auxiliary, recognized the challenges of unionizing these men early on, noting that long stints away from home meant the men could not regularly attend meetings. Given that “[it] was the woman who was the back, uh, backbone in the house of the family,” they needed to step in. This was the only way forward, as she made clear, recognizing that: “Once you had a union to represent you and to speak for you, they knew that they couldn’t treat you as dirt.” (Interview 417383)

The power inherent in this aspect of the collection lies in its ability to tell the story of how upward mobility manifested out of unionization and women’s efforts to make that possible. The collective agreements that resulted from community solidarity led to improved working conditions and higher salaries, which, in turn, gave families the ability to move to suburbs, where they purchased homes. It also meant that there was money left over to help send children to university. Most importantly, as the Winnipeg BSCP’s Ladies’ Auxiliary first President Helen Bailey surmised: “I think men then became to even feel respect for themselves because then they had, uh, they were making a worthwhile living for their families.” (Interview 417400)

Poster advertising the tenth anniversary dance of the Toronto Division of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and their Ladies Auxiliary.

Poster for a tenth anniversary dance organized by The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and their Ladies Auxiliary (e011536972)

The important generational thread that winds through these interviews clearly explains how BSCP Ladies’ Auxiliaries across the country brought women of all ages together to both organize and ultimately fundraise money through various community events, which included teas, socials, and dances. This money helped move union leaders across the country, giving the BSCP strength; funded travel to national and international conventions, giving Canadian labour leaders a voice in the movement; and supplemented education through scholarship funds.

Poster for the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ Convention Special in Los Angeles, California.

International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters poster for a Convention Special in Los Angeles, California (e011536973)

Breaking the generational reality of portering, wherein fathers and their sons were forced into this profession because of the absence of other employment opportunities, was never far from the minds of the women who were involved in the BSCP’s Ladies’ Auxiliaries. Women’s involvement also gave some, like Ivy Lawrence Mayniar/Maynier, glimpses into the systemic racism and discriminatory labour practices that were integral to Black experiences in Canada. In speaking about her father’s career as a porter and her drive to seek out higher education as a result of it, Mayniar shared a powerful memory from while she was a student at McGill University:

[…] I was then going to, to the university. And then I walked down to the…to work at the library for a while. And I walked down to the, uh, uh, station and looked for Dad’s car. And I remember one night, it was bitter. […] It was a bitter night. And I, I, I myself was just so upset about this. And…but I wanted to go down ’cause I knew Daddy was going on standby. He was standing out. And I went down, went to the station, went and looked down the track for Dad. And there he was standing outside. Dad was a short man and this, you know, tight little person. And I looked down there to catch his eye. And there he was standing with snow on top of his cap, and his shoulders pushed…pulled together like this, and the wind was going down that line there, just brutally. It was just awful. And he was just standing there, and, uh…and the snow piled up on him. And, uh, I went and I sat down in the concourse outside from where…from where the trains left…And I just sat on a bench and cried. I’ll never forget that. (Interview 417387)

Mayniar became the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Toronto Law School, but she went on to study in England, where she was called to the bar at the Inns of Court, because she recognized the limitations she would continue to face in Canada as a person of colour. She practiced law in Trinidad and Tobago, where she spent the remainder of her career fighting against the racism and discrimination that she saw exemplified in her father on that cold, wintry day at Windsor Station.

The interviews conducted by Grizzle not only document the history of the fight to unionize CPR sleeping car porters, but also speak to a history that is bound up in the advancement of Black families and their communities throughout Canada. There could not be one without the other. When listening to the voices of these men and women, one hears the power inherent in women’s collective actions, how ever small, and the pride these wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters had in knowing that they effected change on the ground for the men in their lives as well as their children and themselves. When Grizzle asked Evelyn Braxton whether the “Ladies’ Auxiliary lived up to the expectations, uh, of, uh, giving the Brothers the, the maximum support that they, uh, looked forward to,” she wholeheartedly declared: “Oh, they certainly did. The Ladies’ Auxiliary was the support of the Brotherhood men.” (Interview 417386) Women were not only the backbone of their families: they held up their communities and the generations that followed.

Additional resources:

  • My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada: Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle, by Stanley G. Grizzle with John Cooper (OCLC 883975589)
  • Deindustrializing Montreal: Entangled Histories of Race, Residence, and Class, Chapter 3: The Black City below the Hill, by Steven High (OCLC 1274199219)
  • North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870–1955, by Sarah-Jane Mathieu (OCLC 607975641)

Stacey Zembrzycki is an award-winning oral and public historian of immigrant, ethnic and refugee experiences. She is currently doing research for Library and Archives Canada.

Hiding in Plain Sight and the Métis Nation: How did it all start?

By Beth Greenhorn and William Benoit

When we began our research on a possible Métis exhibition in 2014, we had no idea what it would explore or how, what content we could uncover, or what the public’s perception would be. Prior to this, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) had not created an exhibition that focused on Métis Nation citizens, culture and history. When building an exhibition, we often wonder if our labour will be well received. Will the project have longevity or be a momentary flash in time?

While we knew that we wanted to highlight Métis records in the holdings at LAC, we quickly learned that even for us as LAC staff, these records were difficult to find. In the fall of 2014, a keyword search for “Métis” in art, photographic, cartographic and stamp records yielded fewer than 100 documents. We found it hard to believe that LAC holdings contained so few items related to the Métis. The issue had to be about the search terms historically used by archives to describe the Métis. Or the images depicting Métis individuals, activities and communities were described incorrectly. In spite of these obstacles, we were up for the challenge!

Work on the exhibition ramped up in 2015. We curated it in partnership with the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) and the Métis National Council (MNC). Their assistance and knowledge in curating this exhibition were invaluable in its success.

Between 2014 and 2016, we reviewed and updated over 1,800 records by adding “Métis” to the titles or descriptive notes, to make these documents more accessible and to better reflect the diverse voices of the collections at LAC. In addition to improving access to existing records, LAC digitized over 300 new photographic items pertaining to Métis history, many of which were featured in the exhibition. The strategies that we developed to uncover Métis content in the collections at LAC—using historical Métis communities and looking for indications of Métis material culture—offered the perfect title for the exhibition. The content we were searching for was “hiding in plain sight” all along; we just needed to uncover it.

Hiding in Plain Sight opened in February 2016 in LAC’s main building at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. We organized the exhibition into two themes: known portraits of Métis citizens, and artwork and photographs portraying visual clues to Métis culture.

The exhibition became bigger than we had ever imagined. In February 2017, it was adapted for an international audience when Hiding in Plain Sight: The Métis Nation was displayed at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Through the enthusiasm and financial support of the MMF, the MNC and the Government of Canada, Hiding in Plain Sight was transformed into a travelling exhibition of digital reproductions. Since opening at the Centre du patrimoine in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, in June 2017, the exhibition has travelled to 15 communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

Colour photograph of an exhibition space showing large vertical panels with photographs and texts.

Installation of Hiding in Plain Sight at the Centre du patrimoine in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, in June 2017. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Hiding in Plain Sight was shown at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery in Alberta from December 2018 to March 2019. Memories and treasures generously shared by local Métis citizens from their personal collections both personalized the exhibition and complemented the reproductions of artwork and photographs held at LAC.

The exhibition is currently on display at the Swift Current Museum in Saskatchewan. We are delighted by its popularity, and in particular that Métis Nation citizens living outside Ottawa have access to documentary heritage material about their history. It is also important that the general public has the opportunity to learn about the Métis and their rich history and culture in a manner that is accurate and appropriate.

Paving the way to greater access to Indigenous-related records

Whereas Hiding in Plain Sight focuses on art and photographic collections, LAC has increased the amount of digitized content related to the Métis Nation. From 2018 to 2021, the We Are Here: Sharing Stories (WAHSS) initiative digitized nearly 600,000 records from all media pertaining to First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation in Canada. More than half of these records relate to the Métis Nation. The WAHSS team incorporated the names of places, communities and individuals, along with cultural terms, into descriptions to more accurately represent the records and make it easier to find relevant documents. Among the records digitized were thousands of Métis Scrip and Red River lot maps, including this 1880 plan showing the Parish of Lorette, Manitoba.

A map in colour showing numbered farming lots along a river, with the names of individuals.

Plan of river lots in the Parish of Lorette, Manitoba, 1880 (e0011213853)

In 2021, LAC published Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada. This multilingual and interactive e-book features 28 essays written by First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation colleagues at LAC. Nine essays focus on the Métis Nation, presenting audio recordings in Heritage Michif of select images. Nations to Nations is free of charge and downloadable from Apple Books (iBooks format) or from the LAC website (EPUB format). An online version can be viewed on a desktop, tablet or mobile web browser without requiring a plug-in.

The second WAHSS initiative that began in 2022 continues to digitize records related to First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation. Significantly, the current WAHSS team is building on the reparative work we started in 2014 by finding and modifying archival record descriptions through a decolonizing lens.

To learn more about Hiding in Plain Sight, you can read the blog article written in 2016, when the exhibition opened in Ottawa.

To learn more about LAC’s commitment to playing a significant role in reconciliation, you can read LAC’s Indigenous Heritage Action Plan.

Additional resources related to the Métis Nation

Beth Greenhorn is a settler living on the unceded, traditional territory of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan. She is a Senior Project Manager in the Outreach and Engagement Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

 William Benoit is Red River Métis. He grew up in the historic Métis community of St. Norbert, Manitoba. He has a background in Canadian history and Indigenous genealogy. He is an Advisor, Internal Indigenous Engagement, in the Outreach and Engagement Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Faked, forged and counterfeit stamps at Library and Archives Canada

By James Bone

You probably know that Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive number of postage stamps in its collections, but did you know that we also have a large number of faked, forged and counterfeit stamps?

The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically, a fake is an unofficial (not genuine) item, a forgery is a genuine item that has been altered unlawfully, and a counterfeit is a copy of a genuine item. Fakes, forgeries and counterfeits are made for various purposes, including defrauding the postal authority of revenue, tricking collectors who are eager to get a rarity at a too-good-to-be-true price, or succeeding in the intrinsic challenge of producing a convincing imitation. Within philately (the study of postage stamps and their uses), the intentional collection and study of fakes, forgeries and counterfeits helps to ensure that collectors are not being deceived.

Sometimes a counterfeit is easy to spot when placed beside the genuine article. Compare these two stamps from pre-Confederation Prince Edward Island depicting Queen Victoria. It should be obvious which is real and which is not (the one on the left, which has a portrait that is clearly of inferior quality).

A counterfeit beside a genuine Prince Edward Island Postage stamp, each with a portrait of Queen Victoria.

A counterfeit and a genuine Prince Edward Island Postage stamp featuring Queen Victoria (e001219314 and e001219313)

Often it is much more difficult to detect a fake, forgery or counterfeit, and some stamp collectors enthusiastically seek the challenge of finding fraudulent stamps. Three of the main collections with stamps of dubious provenance are the Rowcliffe F. Wrigley collection (R4595), the André Frodel collection (R3759) and the E.A. Smythies fonds (R3853). Each collection holds curiosities for philatelic researchers and collectors.

Rowcliffe “Roy” Wrigley (1885–uncertain) began collecting stamps as a child at age 10. He later became well known for publishing catalogues for collectors of postage stamps used by government departments, characterized by their perforation with the initials OHMS (On His Majesty’s Service) or overprinted with the letter G. Through unknown circumstances, Wrigley came to possess thousands of stamps with forged OHMS perforations: genuine stamps that had been carefully perforated with OHMS to deceive collectors. The problem for Wrigley was that he was also a well-known dealer of OHMS stamps; as a result, the Vancouver detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) took an interest in his activities. Though Wrigley was never proven in court to have done anything wrong, he agreed to transfer the collection by way of the RCMP to the former National Postal Museum, which defaced all of his stamps with a “counterfeit” mark.

Three one-cent Canada Postage stamps, each with a portrait of King George V, maple leaves and crowns, and forged OHMS perforations.

Canada Postage stamps featuring King George V, with forged OHMS perforations (MIKAN 164142). Photo: James Bone

The man who became known as André Frodel in Canada began his life as Andrzej Frodel, born in 1890 to a Polish family in Lviv, then part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and now part of Ukraine. He worked at the Hungarian State Bank Note Company in the interwar years, during which he learned about lithographic printing processes and postage stamp paper stock. He joined the Polish Armed Forces fighting alongside the Western Allies during the Second World War. Frodel was resettled in Canada thereafter with a grant of farmland in Alberta. Within a few years, the farm had failed, and Frodel moved to British Columbia. Making use of his knowledge of printing, inks and stamps, he began to experiment in the creation of counterfeit stamps. As best we know, Frodel had no ill intentions and wanted only to demonstrate his skill, but in time those who acquired his works took the opportunity to resell them as genuine. A striking example is his counterfeit of Canada’s most famous stamp error: the St. Lawrence Seaway invert of 1959. The genuine error sells for more than $10,000, with a well-established number of copies in existence.

A counterfeit beside a genuine five-cent Canada Postage stamp, each with the St. Lawrence Seaway inverted centre error, including a maple leaf and an eagle.

A counterfeit and a genuine Canada Postage stamp featuring the St. Lawrence Seaway, with the inverted centre error (e010784418 and s002662k)

Frodel also made a type of fake stamp known as a fantasy: something that does not exist in genuine form but looks like it could.

A fantasy (fake) four-cent United States Postage stamp, with the St. Lawrence Seaway invert, including a maple leaf and an eagle.

A fantasy (fake) United States Postage stamp featuring the St. Lawrence Seaway, with invert, by André Frodel (e010784431)

Frodel died in poverty in 1963. At the time of his death, he lived as boarder under Lieutenant Colonel Frederick E. Eaton, who owned a stamp shop and was a stamp dealer for whom Frodel was probably making counterfeits and forgeries. Eaton likely had others working to produce materials for him to sell as genuine. Eventually, the RCMP began investigating Eaton and his shop. As with Wrigley, Eaton donated his fraudulent stamps to the National Postal Museum, but in doing so he appears to have falsely attributed all of them to Frodel, who being dead made for an excellent scapegoat. Many of these items were marked on the verso as being forgeries by Frodel to misdirect authorities and philatelic researchers.

A forgery beside a genuine five-cent Canada Postage War Tax overprint revenue stamp, each with a portrait of King George V, maple leaves and crowns.

A forged and a genuine Canada Postage War Tax overprint revenue stamp featuring King George V (e010783309 and s001014k)

Evelyn Arthur Smythies was born in 1885 of British parents in India and was later educated at the University of Oxford. Although he never lived in Canada, his wide-ranging philatelic collecting interests included a strong focus on the stamps of British North America. Smythies collected some of the highest-quality known fakes, forgeries and counterfeits. He spent years studying the details of different fakes, forgeries and counterfeits to identify their creators, but research ongoing to this day has questioned his attributions. Smythies died in 1975. Material from the E.A. Smythies collection is featured in our Unexpected! Surprising Treasures From Library and Archives Canada exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, until November 26, 2023.

A counterfeit beside a genuine six-pence New Brunswick Postage stamp, each with flowers and crowns.

A counterfeit and a genuine New Brunswick Postage stamp (e001219080 and e001219065)

The cat-and-mouse game of making and detecting fakes, forgeries and counterfeit stamps is still ongoing, both for users of the postal system and for collectors. In recent years, one expert consultant for Canada Post estimated that counterfeit stamps defraud the postal system of millions of dollars annually. For collectors, the risk of unknowingly purchasing fraudulent stamps is mitigated by authentication services: items are submitted to a committee of experts who specialize in identifying the false from the genuine articles. By maintaining a collection of known faked, forged and counterfeit stamps, Library and Archives Canada is able to assist in this highly specialized field.

Additional resources

James Bone is a philatelic and art archivist in the Visual and Sound Archives section at Library and Archives Canada.

Origins of Cree syllabics

On the left, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] is in his traditional First Nation regalia on a horse. In the centre, Iggi and a girl engage in a “kunik,” a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide, holds a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

This blog is part of our Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada series. To read this blog post in Cree syllabics and Standard Roman Orthography, visit the e-book.

Nations to Nations: Indigenous Voices at Library and Archives Canada is free of charge and can be downloaded from Apple Books (iBooks format) or from LAC’s website (EPUB format). An online version can be viewed on a desktop, tablet or mobile web browser without requiring a plug-in.

By Samara mîkiwin Harp

Mixed-media artwork. In the centre is a rectangular black-and-white photograph depicting two rows of First Nations children seated and standing in front of a brick building. The photograph is overlaid on a background that is organized into vertical bands on both sides with horizontal bands that run across the top and bottom. The bands are mostly shades of purple, red and blue, and at the top, each has layers of multi-coloured curvilinear and angled lines that look like pencil crayons. There is a black band with white syllabics text running across the top of the photograph, and on the lower-right corner there is a small white rectangular form with black handwriting in English.

If Only We Could Have Our Stories Told, by Jane Ash Poitras, 2004 (e010675581)

This mixed-media work by Cree artist Jane Ash Poitras features a group of children at residential school awaiting the missionaries’ teachings. Church and Crown purposefully disregarded our teachings and stories in an effort to assimilate us. “If only we could have our stories told” expresses the desire of our people to reclaim our language and culture that were taken from us.

“In all the oral accounts of the origins of the Cree syllabary it was told that the missionaries learned Cree syllabics from the Cree. In the [Wes] Fineday account Badger Call was told by the spirits that the missionaries would change the script and claim that the writing belonged to them.” [Please note that in the literature on the subject, Badger Call is also known as Calling Badger and Badger Voice.]

Preliminary research shows that it is generally accepted that the Reverend James Evans (1801–1846) created Cree syllabics sometime during the early 19th century. In 1828, while teaching in Anishinaabe (Ojibway) country, Evans was immersed in “Ojibway” and became proficient in the language. In August 1840, Evans was stationed at a mission in the Cree-speaking community of Norway House (in present-day Manitoba). Anishinaabemowin (Anishinaabe language) and nêhiyawêwin (the Cree language) are in the Algonquian language family and are somewhat similar in their use of sounds.

Black-and-white illustration of a group of people seated on the ground encircling a kneeling man who is recording syllabic writing on a sheet of bark on top of a large stone. Several of the seated people hold sheets of bark with syllabics. A woman is standing in the right foreground and looking toward the group. She is carrying an infant in a cradleboard on her back. There are three teepees behind the group, and a forest in the background.

James Evans recording syllabics on birch bark with a group of nêhiyawak (people of the Cree nation), unknown date, illustration in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], plate between pages 190 and 191 (OCLC 3832900)

Evans worked on the development of a writing system for Ojibway for several years. It is thought that this work formed the basis for his later success in developing a Cree syllabary (a set of written characters representing the syllables of the Cree language). By October 1840, Evans had printed a Cree syllabary chart, and in November of the same year, he printed 300 copies of “Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone,” a short hymnal in syllabics.

Cream-coloured page from a book with black type. It has a chart divided into a wide centre column flanked by two narrow columns. At the top of the centre column is a line with language sounds, and below it are nine rows of syllabics. The left column contains nine sets of letters from the Roman alphabet that correspond to the syllabics, while the right column contains nine sets of syllabic characters and English letters. There are two typed headings in English at the top of the page above the chart. Below the chart are three typed lines in English and syllabics. The page number is located in the centre at the bottom.

Replica of the Cree syllabary chart developed ca. 1840, published in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], p. 187 (OCLC 3832900)

Cream-coloured page from a book with a combination of English and syllabics in black type. The page is filled with five numbered paragraphs, each containing four lines in syllabics. The page title is in English across the top. Just above the paragraphs are two lines in syllabics and English.

The first hymn written and printed in Cree syllabics, ca. 1840, published in Egerton R. Young, The Apostle of the North, Rev. James Evans, New York, Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Co., [1899], p. 193 (OCLC 3832900)

Despite his seemingly incredible skill with nêhiyawêwin, Evans required the knowledge of an interpreter, Thomas Hassall, for the duration of his time in Cree country. Hassall was a Dene man who was able to speak Dene, Cree, English and French. Tragically, Evans accidentally killed Hassall during a duck-hunting trip and, it was rumoured, Evans himself never fully recovered from Hassall’s death. By 1845, the Reverend was facing charges of sexual misconduct toward three Indigenous women and was sent back to England to answer for his crimes. According to Evans’s brother, “before leaving Norway House for England, [James Evans] burned nearly all his manuscripts.” If we are to believe this account, it is quite possible that the physical evidence to establish the creator of Cree syllabics has been lost forever.

Further research suggests that Evans conceived his ideas for the syllabary from other sources that he never credited. According to the British and Foreign Bible Society annual report in 1859, “The idea he derived from an Indian Chief.”

Additional evidence pointing to the influence of nêhiyawak (people of the Cree nation) in the creation of syllabics has also been proposed. For example, the four-directional nature of the syllabics hints at a Cree influence, as the Cree ways of knowing utilize the four directional teachings. We also find evidence in missionary reports that “hieroglyphics” were “painted upon” pieces of birch bark before the arrival of the missionaries: “It was not until Missionaries were sent among the Cree Indians, that any other mode of conveying ideas, except orally, existed; if we exclude the rude hieroglyphics painted upon large pieces of birch bark.” Furthermore, nêhiyawak were known to have used birch bark for creating birch bark bitings. Using the eye teeth, the artist bites designs into thin pieces of birch bark, creating perfectly symmetrical designs when unfolded. This ancient art form can be achieved through a wide variety of folds. A typical folding pattern starts with a square piece of bark, which is folded into a right angle, followed by a complementary-angle fold that, when completed, results in what mathematicians refer to as perfect symmetry. This pre-contact style of art uses spatial thinking and reasoning to create records of ceremony, stories, events and later beadwork patterns. Similarly, Cree syllabics can be arranged in perfect symmetry. Cree oral history says that when the syllabics were gifted to the people from the spirit world, the syllabics were on birch bark.

It is my belief that today’s syllabics are ultimately the result of collaboration between numerous Indigenous people and James Evans. However, to delve deeper into their origins, learners must enter into the world of Cree oral history. My research into oral histories available online uncovered the story of mistanâkôwêw (Calling Badger), a spiritual man from the west in the area now known as Stanley Mission, Saskatchewan. In this account, mistanâkôwêw entered the spirit world and returned with the knowledge of Cree syllabics. A similar story exists about a man named mâcîminâhtik (Hunting Rod) who lived in the east. Fortunately, there are some recordings by Winona Wheeler and Wes Fineday, available online through the CBC, which discuss the Cree origin stories on syllabics.

Additional Resources

Samara mîkiwin Harp was an archivist with the Listen, Hear Our Voices initiative at Library and Archives Canada. She now works in Woods Cree language revitalization and is further pursuing archival studies. Samara grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with Cree roots in both the Southend and Pelican Narrows areas of Treaty 6 in northern Saskatchewan. The first of her father’s family arrived in Ontario in the 1800s from Ireland and England.

Black porters’ voices and stories: the Stanley Grizzle interview collection

By Stacey Zembrzycki

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

The history of the railway in Canada is often narrated in a celebratory manner. It is seen as having united the country from coast to coast, with the last spike coming to symbolize the fruition of Confederation. And yet, this history is deeply rooted in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands and territories, the exploitation of Chinese migrant labourers, and the discriminatory labour practices experienced by Black sleeping car porters. The Stanley Grizzle interview collection, which consists of interviews with 35 men and 8 women who were either porters or had loved ones who worked the rails, offers a different account of the railway. The collection is exceptional because of its ability to bring us deep inside this history. It tells it from a new perspective that places Black Canadian and Black migrant labourers’ voices, as well as the stories of the racism that they experienced while employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), at its centre. These interviews also offer glimpses into the Depression, the Second World War, the struggle to unionize porters, the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and its Ladies’ Auxiliary, and ultimately what life was like inside Black communities across the country. The difficult narratives in this collection speak to the strength and resilience of those who have long been discriminated against simply because of the colour of their skin.

A painted head-and-shoulders portrait showing an older Black man dressed in judge’s robes and a crisp white shirt. His black robes are embellished with a burgundy sash. The man, who looks directly at the viewer, has short grey hair and a grey moustache.

Portrait of Citizenship Judge Stanley Grizzle by William J. Stapleton (c151473k)

In 1986 and 1987, Stanley Grizzle travelled across the country, to the CPR’s major junction points of Montréal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. There, he documented the experiences of those who were born in the first two decades of the 20th century and went on, in most cases, to have long and storied careers as porters. Grizzle was himself a porter for 20 years, as well as a labour union activist, political candidate, civil servant and citizenship judge. The narratives that he collected informed his 1998 memoir, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada, Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle.

Portering was not a profession of choice. It was one of the only employment options available to Black men in the 1950s and 1960s. As Torontonian Leonard Oscar Johnston recounted:

I applied for jobs, but I was refused because of colour. Well, actually they called me “n….” And I remember one day, I walked from Jane and Bloor to River Street, along King Street, lookin’ for a job as a—I was a machinist. I had a couple of years machine shop, and I was told to shine shoes. Yeah. Now that’s 50, 60 years ago, but—and I decided, “Okay, I’ll shine shoes.” So, I went down the CPR.
(Interview 417394)

For others, being a porter was a way to escape the racial violence of the Deep South or to make a better life for themselves after leaving the Caribbean. Many of these migrant labourers were either university educated or held trade specializations but still could not find jobs in Canada. In desperation, they responded to CPR advertisements and recruitment campaigns, becoming porters. Some men stayed for 10 years, moving to other sectors once they opened up. Others remained for up to 40 years, to collect the pensions they earned for their service.

A crowd of people disembark from a train as railway employees and porters help them with their luggage.

Railway porters help passengers to disembark at a railway station (a058321)

These men were responsible for greeting rail passengers and attending to their every need while in transit. Prior to the creation of the BSCP, which ratified its first collective agreement in 1945, it was typical for porters to be on the road for three to four weeks at a time. While away from their families and communities, porters worked 21-hour days. They were permitted to sleep on the leather sofas in the smoking cars beside the bathrooms for just three hours a night, but only when all of their tasks, such as cleaning bathrooms, shining shoes, making beds, counting linens and attending to passengers’ needs, had been completed. The CPR also monitored porters’ time while on layovers, requiring them to report to the main stations daily, where they were forced to relay their activities and movements. For this work, the CPR paid porters a monthly salary of $75. This flat rate, coupled with the absence of overtime pay, meant that tips were the only way to survive.

The men, many of whom had knowledge of or experience working in other unions, knew that their situation could be improved only through unionization. They aligned themselves with famed American labour unionist, civil rights activist and organizer of the BSCP, A. Philip Randolph. The gains in their first collective agreement not only improved the lives of the men, leading to salary increases, overtime pay, assigned sleeping berths and decent meals, but also those of their families. Upward mobility, signified by purchasing homes, moving to the suburbs, and accessing higher education, were key developments that followed. The interviews in this collection describe the struggles to organize union locals across the country. They also depict the people, including the women participating in the Ladies’ Auxiliary, who made these efforts possible.

The experiences of the porters are still difficult to hear, but the interviews are fascinating, bringing us deep into the world of what Melvin Crump referred to as “porter talk” (Interview 417403). Namely, they give listeners the ability to view these experiences as the porters once did. We hear these men seamlessly move beyond the racism and discrimination that they experienced, spinning their everyday encounters into learning opportunities where fun could be had and power could be taken back. George Forray’s reflections were similar to those of others who recognized the systemic racism they faced:

“Well, I found it quite an education. I found it an education which I couldn’t have got at no university. An education in, uh, all the, uh, practically that we can say the facts of life all through and something I couldn’t have bought or earned or been taught, except when I went experienced it myself.”
(Interview 417383)

At heart, the Stanley Grizzle interview collection preserves voices and stories of survival. It tells us how porters viewed their passengers, themselves, and ultimately the world that worked so hard to beat them down.

Additional resources
My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada, Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle by Stanley G. Grizzle with John Cooper (OCLC 1036052571)
• “Chapter 3: The Black City below the Hill,” in Deindustrializing Montreal: Entangled Histories of Race, Residence, and Class by Steven High, pp. 92–128 (OCLC 1274199219)
Unsettling the Great White North: Black Canadian History by Michelle A. Johnson and Funké Aladejebi, eds. (OCLC 1242464894)
North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870–1955 by Sarah-Jane Mathieu (OCLC 607975641)
The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr (OCLC 1302576764)

Stacey Zembrzycki is an award-winning oral and public historian of immigrant, ethnic and refugee experiences. She is currently doing research for Library and Archives Canada.

Douglass Day featuring Mary Ann Shadd Cary – a Co-Lab challenge

Born around 1818 as an enslaved person, Frederick Douglass became a leader in the abolitionist movement in the United States. A prolific writer and a masterful speaker who captivated audiences throughout the U.S. and Great Britain, Frederick Douglass contributed to the rise of antislavery sentiment. He is widely considered the most influential civil and human rights advocate of the 19th century.

Like many enslaved people, Douglass never knew his birthdate. He chose to celebrate every year on February 14. In recognition of his birthday and to honour his legacy, Douglass Day is an annual celebration that highlights resources for learning about Black history and makes them more available. Douglass Day focusses frequently on important Black women’s archives. In 2023, the day will highlight the archives of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a teacher, journalist, lawyer and activist who worked on both sides of the border, and made history when she became the first Black woman in North America to start and publish a newspaper.

A black-and-white photograph of a Black woman looking towards the camera.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (c029977)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born free in the slave state of Delaware in 1823. Her parents, Abraham and Harriet Parnell Shadd, were abolitionists, and their home was a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled Americans to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and levied heavy penalties on those who did not comply. Shadd Cary and her family moved to Canada West (known today as Ontario) in 1851, where she opened a school in Windsor catering to the area’s growing fugitive slave population.

Following her move to Windsor, Shadd Cary gained prominence as an important figure and influential leader within several antislavery societies. In 1853, Shadd Cary was actively involved in founding the weekly newspaper The Provincial Freeman, in which she published content that advocated for equality, integration, and self-education of Black people in Canada and the United States, and promoted emigration to Canada. Shadd Cary continued in her role as a schoolteacher in Chatham, Ontario, and in 1862 became a naturalized citizen of Canada West during the first years of the American Civil War, but returned to the United States thereafter.

A two-tone legal-sized document with print and handwritten text.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s naturalization certificate (e000000725)

Having later moved to Washington, D.C., Mary Ann Shadd Cary pursued law at Howard University, where she reached another historic milestone in 1883 by becoming the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree. During this time, she continued to participate in both civil and equal rights movements in the United States, returning to Canada only briefly, to organize a suffragist rally in 1881.

A document with handwritten and text portions, with a crest along with the letter “A” and the number “128” at the top.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s passport (e011536884-004)

LAC received the collection of original material relating to Mary Ann Shadd Cary in 1960 and 1964 from her granddaughter Muriel E. Thompson. This donation included correspondence between Shadd Cary’s family members, her naturalization certificate for Canada West, her passport for the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), as well as portions of an edition of The Pioneer Press, published in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Most significantly, however, this donation included the only known photograph of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s archives are found not only at Library and Archives Canada, but also at the Archives of Ontario and Howard University in Washington. This year, Douglass Day will feature virtual and local events to help transcribe, read and teach the papers of Mary Ann Shadd Cary held at LAC and the Archives of Ontario. At the centre of the celebration will be a crowdsourcing transcription project called a transcribe-a-thon. During this event, thousands of participants will transcribe the digitized collections. Once their work is complete, this fascinating and important material will be accessible to researchers around the world.

We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe the digitized records that are part of this challenge. You can also make contributions to any image through our Collection Search tool.