The extraordinary life of John Freemont Smith—a Black History Month Co-Lab challenge

By Caitlin Webster

Please note that some of the terms used and documents displayed in this article may contain language that is outdated, insensitive or offensive.

The late 19th century saw thousands of people flock to British Columbia, but few were as remarkable as John Freemont Smith. With an enthusiasm for his new home and a determination to succeed, he flourished as a businessperson, a municipal and federal official, and a civic volunteer. His accomplishments were all the more outstanding given that he was a Black man in a white settler community. He endured racism throughout his life while also earning respect and admiration from his contemporaries. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds many records relating to Smith’s work as the Indian Agent for the Kamloops Agency from 1912 to 1923, and a selection of these documents has been prepared as a Co-Lab challenge.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of John Freemont Smith.

John Freemont Smith, ca. 1870s. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 6163

John Freemont (also spelled Fremont) Smith was born in Saint Croix on October 16, 1850, a few years after slavery was abolished in the Danish West Indies. He received his education and training as a shoemaker in Copenhagen and Liverpool before travelling through Europe and South America. He arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1872, set up a shoemaking business, and in 1877, he married Mary Anastasia Miller.

Black-and-white studio family portrait, showing Mary Smith and John Freemont Smith seated, and five of their children standing around them.

John Freemont Smith and family, including wife Mary and children Agnes, Louise, Mary, Leo and Amy, ca. 1907–1910. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 10008

After brief stays in New Westminster and Kamloops, the family settled in the Louis Creek area in 1886. There Smith set up a store, prospected for minerals and dabbled in freelance journalism. He also served as Louis Creek’s first postmaster, a position he held until 1898.

That year, a fire destroyed the Smith home in Louis Creek, and the family relocated to Kamloops.

Colour-coded map of a portion of the city of Kamloops, showing streets and building locations.

Fire insurance plan of Kamloops, British Columbia, May 1914 (e010688881-v8)

Smith continued to thrive in Kamloops, serving as alderman from 1902 to 1907, and as city assessor in 1908. He was also active in the community in other ways, helping to organize groups such as the local Agricultural Association, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Conservative Association, and the Kamloops Board of Trade, where he served as secretary for several years. In 1911, Smith constructed the Freemont Block building on Victoria Street in Kamloops, which still stands today.

Black-and-white photograph of seven men in suits posing on a wooden sidewalk in front of a building entrance. Bystanders, including two men in suits and two unidentified young girls in white dresses and hats, appear in the background.

Kamloops City Council of 1905: Alderman J.F. Smith, Alderman D.C. McLaren, Alderman R.M. MacKay, Mayor C.S. Stevens, Alderman J.M. Harper, Alderman J. Milton and Alderman A.E. McLean; in background: J.H. Clements and William Charles; taken at the corner of Victoria Street and 3rd Avenue. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 2858

In 1912, at the age of 62, Smith was appointed Indian Agent for Kamloops, a position he held for over a decade. Smith took this role at a challenging time. His predecessor was generally considered ineffective and absent, and the interests of the local First Nation, the Secwepemc, suffered even further as a result. In addition, the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia was established in 1912. Commonly known as the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, it had a significant impact on First Nations land bases by adding to, reducing or eliminating reserves throughout the province. Some of Smith’s earliest tasks as Agent were to travel throughout the sprawling agency to collect data for the commission, and then to advocate for the Secwepemc against attempts to cut off the most valuable portions of their reserve lands.

Map showing reserves in the Nicola and Kamloops agencies, with colour coding indicating existing reserves, new reserves and land cut off from reserves.

Kamloops Agency, 1916 (e010772172)

In addition, Smith’s situation was complicated. As a Black settler in a predominantly white society, he experienced racism from many in his community. Yet his task as Agent was to carry out the Canadian government’s policy of assimilation for Indigenous peoples. As shown by the 1910 general instructions given to new Agents in British Columbia, the goal was to steer the Secwepemc toward farming and ranching rather than their traditional ways of living, implement a Western system of separate land plots for each family instead of collective land, and encourage an ideal of individual independence over values of mutual aid.

One page of a typewritten letter, with some handwritten annotations.

Page six of a “copy of general instructions to newly appointed Indian Agents in British Columbia,” 1910 (e007817641)

Given Smith’s status and work, it is likely he was not naïve about the nature of these policies, as implementing them would be a requirement of any Agent. This resulted in a complex situation: a racialized individual imposing assimilation policies on another racialized community, on behalf of a colonial governance system. It is evident throughout Smith’s time as an Agent, however, that he approached the work with intelligent pragmatism, an outstanding work ethic and a spirit of advocacy for the Secwepemc.

The vast size of the Kamloops Agency and a constant lack of funds were two overarching challenges of Smith’s tenure as Agent. Additionally, the difficulties of encroaching settlement and its resulting strain on reserve land and irrigation were issues that plagued Smith throughout the 11 years that he held the position. From Smith’s earliest Royal Commission testimony to his reports that were logged a decade later, LAC’s holdings show the frustrating dilemma he faced. His task was to implement a policy to encourage farming and ranching, but there were few financial resources to help move this goal forward. Meanwhile farmers, ranchers and corporations from the settler community diverted water sources, trespassed on Secwepemc territory and lobbied for the removal of desirable lands from reserves.

An example of this pressure was the continual vigilance and advocacy required to protect and retain Kamloops Reserve No. 1, which was situated directly across the Thompson River from the city of Kamloops. Prominent individuals in the city lobbied for the removal of the Secwepemc from the reserve as well as the subsequent sale of the land. Attempts during Smith’s tenure as Agent included a submission by the Kamloops Board of Trade to the Royal Commission in 1913 arguing that the Secwepemc would be better off if they sold the land and moved away from Kamloops, and that the city could more readily expand with the removal of the reserve.

Handwritten letter on Kamloops Board of Trade letterhead, affixed to a Royal Commission form with an exhibit number.

Application to the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for British Columbia by the Kamloops Board of Trade, to sell all or most of Kamloops Reserve No. 1 (RG10 volume 11021 file 538C from Canadiana Héritage)

An additional attempt took place in 1919 when Henry Denison, secretary of the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, put forward a proposal to use the land as a settlement colony for soldiers returning from the First World War. Unsurprisingly, Smith opposed the renewed bid to obtain the reserve land. This elicited a racist response from Denison in a letter to Member of Parliament H.H. Stevens claiming, without evidence, that the Secwepemc resented having a Black man serve as Agent.

One page of a typewritten letter, with some handwritten annotations.

Page two of a letter from Henry Denison to H.H. Stevens, expressing racist and anti-Catholic views (RG10 Volume 7538 File 26 154-1 from Canadiana Héritage)

These experiences, as well as his wealth of knowledge of local politics and officials, made Smith well placed to identify unfair tactics used against the Secwepemc. Acquainted with the cronyism operating in many small towns, Smith could spot the discriminatory practices of some local governments. For example, while attempting to have a peddler’s fee refunded to Chief Titlanetza of the Cook’s Ferry Band, Smith explained the approach of one municipal government: “It is common property that the overhead maintenance charges of the City of Merritt are considerably maintained from money extorted from Indians in fines and other methods.”

Smith continued as Agent until 1923, and he remained in Kamloops for the rest of his life. He continued to write for the local newspaper and carried on with his volunteer duties in civic organizations such as the local Rotary Club. Smith died at his office in the Freemont Block on October 5, 1934.

Co-Lab is LAC’s online tool to tag, transcribe, translate and describe digitized holdings on our website. To commemorate Black History Month, LAC has created a Co-Lab challenge to transcribe records relating to John Freemont Smith’s work as the Kamloops Agent. Please note that some of the documents in this challenge may contain language that is outdated, insensitive or offensive.

To learn more about John Freemont Smith and the lives of the Secwepemc at the time, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Pushing Back: The Ongoing History of Black Activism in Canada

By Amina Musa and Krista Cooke

Black and white photograph showing three young people seated at a meeting room table, holding what appear to be speaking notes or meeting agendas. On the left is a white woman with short cropped hair and a suede jacket. In the centre, a Black woman wearing sunglasses and wide headband. To the right, a Black man wearing a patterned shirt and plain coloured jacket. Behind them, on the wall above their heads, is a large formal photographic portrait of an older white man in a jacket and tie.

Speakers at a Greater Windsor Foundation meeting, 1963 (MG28-I119)

Fighting for respect and legal equality has been a centuries-old battle for Black Canadians. These young people, photographed in 1963 by Irv King at the height of the American civil rights movement, were working with the Greater Windsor Foundation in Ontario to make positive changes in their community. From individual moments of courage to collective actions like this one, improving the lives of a racially marginalized people has been an ongoing fight.

In 1628, a six-year-old boy taken by slave traders in Madagascar became New France’s first documented slave. The fight against slavery and its long lasting legacy of racism continues today. The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection includes works of art, photographs, documents, maps and audiovisual materials that capture the changes and continuities of Black Canadian lives. While many gaps remain, the Black history collection has some notable strengths, including resources related to the United Empire Loyalists, the Elgin Settlement, railway porters, and late 20th century authors, politicians and civil rights activists, like the ones featured here.

For hundreds of years, many individuals have pushed back against systemic racism in Canada. Some concentrated their efforts on celebrating, documenting and preserving their community’s rich and diverse cultures. Some have fought the status quo through legal challenges and policy changes. Some have worked to build networks of support to help others thrive financially and emotionally. Many have done all three, building better futures for coming generations of Black Canadians.

A crowd of people walk down the centre of the road in a small town parade. On either side, wooden storefronts line the street. The crowd, led by a distinguished mustached Black man wearing a top hat and tails and riding a horse, consists of a marching band, groups of small boys, and a handful of adults. Most of the people whose faces are visible in the crowd appear to be Black. In the background, a second horse pulls a parade float with women in white dresses and large hats.

Emancipation Day parade in Amherstburg, Ontario, 1894 (a163923)

Celebrating Black culture in Canada today takes many forms. Rich literary, musical and artistic scenes; a number of cultural centres, museums and historic sites; Black History Month; Black Studies university programs; and several festivals mark the importance of the Black community to Canadian culture. Emancipation Day—pictured above in Amherstburg, Ontario, in 1894—is one such annual event. It has been celebrating the Abolition of Slavery Act since 1834! All of these festivals, books and museums have one thing in common: determined people who believed in the importance of celebrating Black culture and history. LAC holds collections related to many of these individuals and organizations, including authors like Dionne Brand; the historically-minded Daniel G. Hill, one of the co-founders of the Ontario Black History Society; journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary; advocacy groups including the Jamaican Canadian Association and Black Artists in Action; scholar Clarence Bayne, co-founder of the Black Theatre Workshop; and many others. Their activism, along with that of so many others, has shaped how Canadians of all backgrounds have understood the Black experience.

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 white moustache.

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

The fight against anti-Black discrimination involved many legal hurdles. During the early 20th century, many Black people were not given access to resources or allowed the same opportunities as others. Struggling for equality often meant challenging these restrictions in court. Stanley Grizzle began fighting for equality in the 1930s as a founding member of the Railway Porter’s Trade Union Council in Toronto. Grizzle worked to document other community activists and left an extensive collection of research files at LAC.

One of the people Grizzle documented was Charles Roach, a human rights lawyer and activist. Roach used his legal expertise to represent many people who were dealing with oppression and hardships, including refugees immigrating to Canada. Roach was one of the co-founders of the Black Action Defence Committee, a Toronto-based organization created in the 1970s in response to the deaths of several Black men at the hands of police. This Committee was instrumental in the formation of the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

Pearleen Oliver, recently the subject of a new biography, led a successful 1940s campaign that overturned the exclusion of Black women from nursing schools. She and her husband, Dr. William Pearly Oliver, founded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to fight against discrimination related to employment, education and housing. Roach, Grizzle and the Olivers were just a few change makers in a community of activists, many of whom have left important marks on Canadian society.

A sketched portrait of a seated woman. The artist has used the barest of lines at the base of the portrait to depict the woman’s skirt, but has completed the watercolour portrait of the woman’s face, with detail increasing toward the top of the page. The woman, who is Black, is wearing a black-and-white patterned headscarf, a shawl, a wide-sleeved blouse gathered at the wrists, gloves, and a skirt. She is seated with her hands folded in her lap and appears to be looking off into the distance, over the viewer’s left shoulder.

The “Good Woman of Colour” by artist Lady Caroline B. Estcourt (c093963k)

Racial prejudice in Canada has taken many forms. From outright slavery, through legally sanctioned inequality that left many Black Canadians unable to choose where to work, live, worship or study, to the grinding reality of systemic racism, generations of Black Canadians have suffered marginalization. As a result, it has been especially important for community members to support each other. This unnamed Niagara region woman impressed the artist who sketched her portrait by taking in an impoverished Black man who had taken ill and fallen behind on rent. The Black Swan (Elizabeth Greenfield), an American concert singer and former slave, donated the benefits of an 1855 concert to help fund the movement of runaway slaves to Canada. More recently, organizations like the Home Service Association in Toronto and the Negro Community Centre in Montréal have provided aid to those who needed it, promoted Black cultural events, and hosted speakers on important topics such as apartheid and the civil rights movement.

A black-and-white photograph of three little girls holding toys. The two girls on the left are holding porcelain dolls and the girl on the right is holding a large stuffed teddy bear. All three of the children, who are Black, are smiling shyly at the photographer and onlookers. They are dressed up, with their hair in braids and ribbons, and are standing in front of a poster-covered wall.

Three young girls celebrate Brotherhood Week at the Negro Community Centre in Montréal—(left to right) Eleitha Haynes, Elizabeth Phillips and Camille Haynes, 1959. Photo Credit: Dave Legget (e011051725)

From individual acts of courage and support, to community organization and formal legal challenges, the Black community in Canada has worked for centuries to overcome racism. The Black Lives Matter movement, which in 2020 brought anti-racist activism into the media spotlight, has built upon the bravery and outspokenness of previous generations of Black Canadians, drawing attention once again to the realities of racism in Canada.


Krista Cooke is a curator with the Public Services Branch and Amina Musa is an Archival Assistant with the Archives Branch.

 

The Jamaican Canadian Association and women’s involvement

By Christine Barrass

Founded 56 years ago, the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) was created by Jamaicans living in Toronto. It was 1962, and as Jamaica prepared for independence from the United Kingdom, this group decided to plan a celebratory dinner and dance. The event on August 6, Independence Day, was a roaring success. Discussions afterwards supported setting up an organization that could both help immigrants from Caribbean countries adapt to life in Toronto and advocate on behalf of Caribbean and African-Canadian citizens in the city. To this end, a Constitution Committee, made up of three men and three women, was established. On September 23, 1962, participants at a well-attended Organizational Meeting approved the JCA constitution and elected its first Executive Committee.

Dr. Vincent Conville, a long-time member of the association and its president from 1977 to 1978, wrote his PhD thesis on the JCA. In 2008, he donated the material that comprises the Jamaican Canadian Association fonds to Library and Archives Canada. This material contains transcripts of oral interviews he conducted with founding and prominent members of the group as well as copies of the JCA newsletter, In Focus. These interviews and newsletters include many frank and insightful opinions from women such as Amy Nelson, Kamala-Jean Gopie and Erma Collins.

Unusual for its time, the JCA had more female than male members. These women were a diverse group of university students, nurses and domestic workers who joined the association with a shared desire to help others in the Caribbean community in Toronto and across Canada. Women in the JCA played a varied role that changed over time. Despite their numbers, women acted largely behind the scenes rather than in leadership positions during the JCA’s first decades. They organized fundraisers, created committees and supported the association’s goal of providing much-needed social services. In an interview conducted by Dr. Conville, one of the founding members of the JCA, Amy Nelson, acknowledged the inequality in the organization, viewing it as a product of the times: men were simply found in leadership roles more often, whether in the JCA or in society at large.

The front page of a black-and-green printed newsletter. The main headline reads: “….founder, Amy Nelson looking back on 40 years…”

In Focus newsletter, dated November 2002 (e011218459)

One woman who managed to become a leader in the JCA was Kamala-Jean Gopie (formerly Jean Gammage). Joining the association in 1974, she quickly became a very active member. In 1975, she took on the role of Executive Secretary, and from 1978 to 1980 she served as the first female president of the JCA. Despite her leadership roles, however, she recalled in an In Focus interview that attending an award ceremony as a guest rather than as an organizer was a novel experience!

The front page of a printed newsletter. The headline reads: “Kamala-Jean Gopie: A woman with a mission.

In Focus newsletter, Volume 4, Number 3, dated May 1995 (e011218458)

The unique contributions by women in the JCA led to the creation of what was initially the Women’s Auxiliary, later resurrected as the Women’s Committee. Formed in the early 1970s, the Auxiliary focused on using women’s backgrounds as health care workers to support some of the JCA’s activities. In its second incarnation as the Women’s Committee, the focus changed. Erma Collins, the first female Vice-President of the association, and Pam Powell, a former Board member, recalled that this committee filled gaps in programming for the female membership. The committee addressed pressing issues such as women’s health care, including organizing a health fair in Ontario for Black women, in 1993. The committee subsequently broadened its focus to address other issues of gender equality as well.

The front page of a printed newsletter. The main headline reads: “JCA elects first female 1st Vice-President.”

In Focus newsletter, Volume 3, Number 9, dated April 1993 (e011218457)

The Women’s Committee proudly continues to this day!


Christine Barrass is a senior archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

John Armstrong Howard, Canada’s first Black Olympian

By Judith Enright-Smith

The 1912 summer Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden, from May 5 to July 27 was a venue for many firsts. This fifth Olympiad, comprised of 2,408 athletes from 28 nations, was the first to showcase women’s swimming and diving events as well as the men’s pentathlon. It was the first Olympics to use electronic timing and the first occasion a team from Asia (Japan) competed at the games. For Canada, the 1912 summer Olympics meant another first—the first Canadian Black athlete to compete in the Olympic Games.

John Armstrong Howard was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on October 6, 1888. Howard was a qualified mechanic and played baseball for Winnipeg’s Crescent Creamery Baseball Club; at 6 foot 3 inches tall, he was also an exceptional sprinter. He handily qualified for the 1912 Olympics and was looked upon not only in sporting circles but also in the Canadian media as the nation’s best hope for bringing home a gold medal.

Walter Knox was coach of the 1912 Canadian Olympic Track and Field Team. During training, Knox and Howard had several disputes and confrontations. Knox described Howard as outspoken and disobedient and, at a time when discrimination against Black athletes was common, recommended he be fired from the team for “insubordination.” It was only through the intervention of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada that Howard remained on the team.

While en route to Sweden, Howard faced discriminatory and prejudicial treatment, an affront endured by people of colour in that time. Before setting sail from Montreal, he was barred from the hotel where the other athletes were staying, and while on board, he had to eat his meals in a different dining area away from his teammates.

Once in Stockholm, the cumulative stress of his interactions with Knox manifested itself in the form of severe stomach complaints. At the games, Howard’s health issues seriously hindered his efforts and he was defeated in the semi-finals of the 100- and 200-metre sprint. However, once back home, Howard redeemed himself at the 1913 Canadian Outdoor Championships by winning every race he entered.

After the outbreak of the First World War, Howard went overseas in 1917 as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He worked in various English army hospitals carrying stretchers. His military records show that he suffered from chronic lung ailments. While overseas, Howard met Edith Lipscomb. Edith returned to Winnipeg with Howard in 1920 where they were married. They attempted to set up house in Ste. Rose du Lac, but experienced much hostility and prejudice as an interracial couple. Howard’s granddaughter, Valerie Jerome, tells of townspeople pelting the couple’s car with stones to drive them away. Eventually they settled near the Crane River Indian Reserve on the northwest shore of Lake Manitoba. The couple had three daughters, but the marriage did not last. Howard later died from pneumonia at the age of 48.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of runners at the starting line. One is wearing a white shirt with a maple leaf on the front.

John Armstrong Howard at the Inter-Allied Games in Pershing Stadium, Paris, July 1919 (a006650)

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed in athletic wear, surrounded by other men in similar attire or in uniforms, receiving a medal from an older man in military dress.

John Armstrong Howard receiving his bronze medal for the 100-metre event from the King of Montenegro, at the Inter-Allied Games in Pershing Stadium, Paris, July 1919 (a006626)

John Armstrong Howard’s athletic legacy lives on. Two of Howard’s grandchildren are Canadian athletes. Valerie Jerome is a sprinter who competed in the 1960 summer Olympics. Her brother Harry Jerome competed in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 summer Olympics, winning a bronze medal in 1964 in the 100-metre dash.


Judith Enright-Smith is an archival assistant in the Aboriginal and Social Affairs Section of the Private Archives Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Jackie Robinson and the baseball colour barrier

By Dalton Campbell

In April 1946, Jackie Robinson took the field with the Montreal Royals baseball team, which played in the International League. He was the first Black man signed to a Major League Baseball team in the twentieth century. After signing a contract in October 1945 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was assigned by Dodgers’ management to the Royals, the Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, in order to gain experience. They thought that Montreal would be a less hostile city for him to learn to deal with media scrutiny and fan attention and to endure on-field discrimination and physical intimidation.

Black-and-white photograph of a baseball player running the bases. His foot is on third base and he is turning and heading to home plate. In the background are other players, and in the distance the outfield fence and trees.

Jackie Robinson, in a Montreal Royals’ uniform, circles third base and heads for home during spring training. April 20, 1946 (a201547)

In the first game of the season, he more than held his own. He had four hits, three runs, and a home run. A famous photograph captures Royals’ teammate George “Shotgun” Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand as he crossed home plate after his home run. This is believed to be the first photograph of a white man congratulating a Black man on a baseball diamond. Continue reading

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones

This Black History Month, Library and Archives Canada highlights the service of Black Canadians during the First World War. While all Canadians were equally caught up in the patriotism of the early part of the war and the opportunities offered by military service, Black Canadians had difficulty enlisting due to the racism of the era. Although there was no official or explicitly stated policy of exclusion, the Canadian military left recruitment decisions to the discretion of individual commanding officers. Black Canadian volunteers along with those from other minority groups were left to enlist in whichever regiments would accept them. A special unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, was formed by members of the Black community in Nova Scotia. The battalion, whose members weren’t allowed to fight, dug trenches, repaired roads, and attracted hundreds of recruits from across Canada and even the United States.

A sepia-coloured photograph of a man in uniform wearing an officer’s belt and cap holding a baton in both hands across his upper thighs.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, First World War private taken by an unknown photographer, from the personal collection of the Jones family (Wikipedia)

Among those Black Canadians who volunteered and served was Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, a Nova Scotian soldier who enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June 1916. Born in East Mountain, Nova Scotia on March 30, 1858, Jones was over 50 years old when he enlisted and lied about his age in order to join the army. Jones was sent overseas, where he transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment and saw combat on the front lines in France, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. During the battle, with his unit pinned down by machine gun fire, Jones moved forward alone to attack the German gun emplacement. He reached the machine gun nest and threw a grenade that killed several German soldiers. The survivors surrendered to Jones, who had them carry the machine gun back to the Canadian lines and present it to his commanding officer. It is reported that Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, though no record exists to show that he ever received the medal. In the decades following the war, the Truro Daily News and Senator Calvin Ruck highlighted Jones’ bravery and lobbied to have the Canadian government formally recognize his actions. Ruck in particular argued that the racist sentiment of the time had prevented Jones and other Black soldiers from being properly recognized for their heroism.

A nominal list showing the regimental number, rank, name, former corps, name of next of kin, address of next of kin, country of birth, and the place and date on which they were taken on strength.

Entry for Jeremiah Jones in the “Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men” of the 106th Battalion (e011092698)

Jones was injured at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and again at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was formally discharged in Halifax in early 1918 after being found medically unfit. He died in November 1950. Jeremiah Jones was posthumously awarded the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service on February 22, 2010.

Railway sleeping car porters

By Dalton Campbell

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.

A black-and-white photograph of three men posing beside a railway car. A chef stands on the steps leading into the train, another man holds the handrail and the third, a porter, stands to the side beside the train.

A porter with two other employees at a stop during the tour of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle across Canada, 1914 (a011186)

A black-and-white photograph of a woman, in profile, lying under the blankets in the lower bunk reading a newspaper.

In the evenings, the porters would make up the beds. One of the seats was extended to create the comfortable lower bunk. While the passengers slept, the porters continued to work until after midnight. The porters could nap if there were no calls or emergencies during the night, but were awake to begin their workday before dawn, 1937 (e010861953)

A black-and-white photograph of people seated in a railway sleeping car, looking out the windows.

While the passengers were at breakfast, the porters would convert the berths back into seating. The upper berth would be stowed into the panels above the passenger seats, 1929 (e010861953)

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.

A black-and-white photograph of people in a train station. A porter, with luggage on a dolly, is facing away from the camera. Two well-dressed travellers are speaking to a ticket agent. An information board with destinations is on the wall behind the travellers announcing the train as “The Dominion” from Montréal to Vancouver. A passenger train is visible in the background.

A porter takes luggage for passengers about to board “The Dominion” at Windsor Station, Montréal, Quebec, circa 1947 (e003641861)

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.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people with baggage standing on the platform next to a passenger train. Two porters are seen beside the train. One is on the platform attending to some luggage; the other stands in the doorway of the train. An automobile in the foreground has a sign on the door reading “Jasper Park Lodge.” Mountains are visible in the distance.

Two porters assist passengers and other crew at the railway station in Jasper, Alberta, 1929 (a058321)

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.

Related resources


Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.

Oscar Peterson

By Dalton Campbell

These photographs of Oscar Peterson and his family were taken in 1944. He was in his late teens and already an experienced professional musician. He had been playing regularly with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra since 1942, a popular swing band that played to the dance crowd in and around Montreal. Oscar left the orchestra in 1947 and began a residency at the Alberta Lounge, a club near Windsor Station, leading a trio there for two years.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson playing the piano in a lounge.

Oscar Peterson, photographed by D.C. Langford [1944] (e010752610)

Given the vibrant jazz scene in the city, Oscar had lots of opportunities to play: he performed professionally, played live for CBC Radio broadcasts, attended jam sessions, and met and jammed with visiting musicians performing in town. He earned praise from Count Basie, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Oscar was based in Canada until 1949 when Norman Granz convinced him to join the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert series in Los Angeles. This marked the beginning of his international career.

Oscar’s parents were immigrants to Canada. Daniel Peterson, Oscar’s father, was from the British Virgin Islands and worked as a boatswain on a merchant ship. His mother, Kathleen Olivia John, was from St. Kitts, British West Indies, and worked as a cook and housekeeper. They met and married in Montreal, settling in Little Burgundy/St-Henri, a predominately Black neighbourhood. Like many men living there, Daniel got a job at Windsor Station as a porter on passenger trains for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson with his father, Daniel. Both men are sitting at a piano, with their hands on the keyboard, smiling and looking up at the camera.

Oscar Peterson and his father, Daniel, at the piano [1944] (e011073129)

With instruction and encouragement from their parents, the Peterson children became accomplished musicians.

Fred, the eldest child, introduced Oscar to ragtime and jazz when he played it on the family piano. Fred died in the 1930s while still a teenager. Oscar said Fred was the most talented musician of the family.

A black-and-white photograph showing Oscar Peterson seated, playing piano. His brother Charles, dressed in the uniform of the Canadian Army, stands next to him playing the trumpet.

Oscar Peterson on piano, with his brother, Chuck, accompanying him on trumpet [1944] (e011073128)


Another brother, Charles, who served with an artillery battery in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, played in the regimental band. After the war, he continued as a professional trumpet player, doing studio work and performing at various Montreal nightclubs through the 1950s and 1960s. Like his siblings, he also played the piano, but was forced to give it up after suffering an industrial accident while working in a factory in Montreal after the war.

A black-and-white photograph of Oscar Peterson and his sister Daisy seated at the piano with their hands on the keyboard. They are looking at the camera and smiling.

Oscar Peterson with his sister, Daisy, at the piano [1944] (e011073127)

Daisy, Oscar’s oldest sister, was also a virtuoso pianist. She earned a degree in music from McGill University and had a lengthy and influential career as a music teacher in Montreal. She was her siblings’ first piano teacher and introduced Oscar to her own piano teacher, Paul de Marky, a concert pianist who played in the Franz Liszt tradition. Daisy taught for many years in Montreal; her students included future jazz musicians Milton Sealey, Oliver Jones, Reg Wilson and Joe Sealy.

Related Resources


Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.