By Stacey Zembrzycki
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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.
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)
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.
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.
- 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.