Soldiers at the Front, Workers in Factories

By Lucie Paquet

In August 1914, countries in Europe started a war that was expected to be over quickly. Like many Western countries, Canada mobilized and sent troops to fight on the Allied side during the First World War. The French army, largely deprived of heavy industry and mining resources, soon ran out of military materiel, which led to a marked increase in demand for all kinds of products. So from 1914 to 1918, Canada took action to address this situation by requisitioning nearly 540 industrial facilities across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver. Steel factories deemed essential by the government were converted to manufacture war materiel. To support the army, their activities were closely supervised by the Imperial Munitions Board, which appointed and sent more than 2,300 government inspectors to factories to supervise, test and evaluate the production of military goods. It was under these circumstances that The Steel Company of Canada (now Stelco) converted a large part of its operations to produce materiel for war.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board, in black text with some red underlining, listing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board detailing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada. (e011198346)

However, this change led to problems. Since the factories were not prepared to manufacture weapons quickly and to ensure consistent high quality, orders were delivered late and, very often, the equipment was defective. Stelco faced this reality and experienced these difficulties.

First page (pink) of a letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells.

Letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells. (e011198359-001)

Stelco’s biggest challenge involved the supply of raw materials. First, these had to be found and extracted; then the raw ore had to be transported from the mines to the plants; the necessary machinery and equipment had to be acquired and the new blast furnaces put into operation; and, finally, workers had to be trained for each stage of the manufacturing process. With its newly electric-powered mill for making steel bars, Stelco was able to start production quickly. It hired women to replace the hundred workers sent to the front, and it bought mining properties in Pennsylvania and Minnesota to supply coal and iron to its factories. Stelco also renovated and modernized its plants.

Table listing, in blue and red text, Stelco’s capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment.

Statement prepared by Stelco outlining capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment (e011198354)

Transportation systems were built to carry raw metals to Stelco’s processing plants in Montréal, Brantford, Gananoque and Hamilton. At the time, most major Canadian cities were linked by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway lines, to transport soldiers and military goods.

Fall 1916 was a turning point in the steel industry, after two years of experimentation and production. As war continued to rage in Europe, metallurgists and industrialists decided to hold strategic meetings. The first meeting of the Metallurgical Association was held in Montréal on October 25, 1916, to discuss scientific advances in manufacturing military equipment. On that occasion, Stelco held an exhibition to showcase its products.

 

Two printed pages from the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin with black-and-white photographs of shells produced by Stelco.

Photos in the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin showing shells produced by Stelco. (e011198345)

In 1917, Stelco built two new plants in Hamilton. In addition to artillery pieces, steel panels were also manufactured for the construction of ships, rail cars, vehicles and aircraft parts.

As the war intensified, the demand for munitions increased dramatically. Production levels rose, prompting a reorganization of the world of work. To speed up production, workers were now paid wages based on the time allocated to manufacture each part. Bonuses were also awarded to the fastest workers.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task. (e011198358)

Black-and-white photograph showing the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916.

View of the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916. (e011198375)

The war effort created a strong sense of brotherhood and patriotism, and workers put their demands on hold. A message from the superintendent of the shell department, delivered on January 4, 1917, clearly shows the pressure in the factories and the crucial role of the workers.

Handwritten letter written by superintendent E. Frankland to employees of Stelco’s shell department. (e011198367; a French version of this letter is also available: e011198368)

More than a hundred workers from the steel mills would fight in the trenches; most of them were sent to France. This list, dated November 16, 1918, shows the name and rank of each worker who went to fight, the name of his battalion or regiment, and his last known home base.

Four typewritten pages listing Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918).

List of Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918). (e011198365)

Fundraising campaigns were organized during the war to help soldiers and their families. Workers contributed a portion of their wages to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page, in black and white, and pages 23 and 24, in black and red, of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page and pages 23 and 24 of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund. (e0111983867 and e011198385)

The work of factory workers was very demanding. Although the tasks required a high degree of precision, they were repetitive and had to be performed swiftly on the production line.

Left, a black-and-white photograph of workers on a production line for shells. Right, a blue Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week.

Left, Stelco workers on a production line for 9.2-inch shells. Right, an Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week. (e011198374 and e011198362)

The products were heavy and dangerous to handle. The workers melted the steel in the blast furnaces and then poured it into rectangular moulds. With tongs, they removed the glowing hot steel ingots and placed them on wagons. The ingots were then transported to the forge, where they were rolled into round bars according to the dimensions required to form the various shell tubes.

Black-and-white photograph of a worker using long tongs on a glowing hot steel ingot.

Reproduction of a photograph of a worker using long tongs to remove a glowing hot 80-pound steel ingot from a 500-tonne press. (e01118391)

Black-and-white photograph of workers posing beside hundreds of shell cylinders.

Stelco workers pose proudly beside hundreds of shell cylinders made from molten steel. (e01118373)

A large quantity of steel bars was produced to manufacture 9.2-inch, 8-inch, 6.45-inch and 4.5-inch shells.

Black-and-white photograph of the interior of a shell factory in Montréal on May 12, 1916.

View of the inside of Stelco’s shell factory on Notre-Dame Street, Montréal, May 12, 1916. (e01118377)

In 1915, Stelco’s plants in Brantford, Ontario, and on Notre-Dame Street in Montréal forged some 119,000 shells. The combined production of the two plants increased to 537,555 shells in 1917, then reached 1,312,616 shells in 1918. Under great pressure, Canadian factories continued to process millions of tonnes of steel into military materiel until the Armistice ending the First World War was signed in November 1918.


Lucie Paquet is a senior archivist in the Science, Governance and Political Division at Library and Archives Canada

Unemployment insurance revenue stamps and the Danny Leong collection

By James Bone

The Canadian government studied and established the first building blocks of our current social safety net in the early 1940s, during the Second World War. The government was looking to avoid or abate a repetition of Canada’s experience of increased unemployment when soldiers returned from the First World War, especially in manufacturing with the end of wartime production and the resulting lower demand. One of the ideas that it seized upon was unemployment insurance: a mandatory program to which both employees and employers would contribute based on a given employee’s wages; if the job was lost, that person would have some guarantee of a continued income for a specified period. The legislation establishing the program received royal assent in August 1940 and took effect on July 1, 1941. While unemployment insurance has been modified and reformed since then, the essence remains the same under the present Employment Insurance program.

A colour photograph of a red-brown stamp with the following text: Canada. Unemployment Insurance. Assurance-Chomage. 1/6 27¢. Insured 0 Assuré.

An uncancelled 27-cent unemployment insurance stamp from 1941 (MIKAN 4933817)

A colour photograph of a green unemployment insurance stamp.

A 51-cent unemployment insurance stamp from 1941 (MIKAN 4933828)

At the time, of course, there was no computer-based record keeping, and a means had to be devised to show not only that payments for contributions had been made but also that a given employee was entitled to coverage. The most common method of proving that taxes or fees had been paid for government services during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was through the use of revenue stamps. Similar to postage stamps, revenue stamps specify the amount of money paid to purchase the stamp and the tax or fee that they were created to pay for. When used, revenue stamps were cancelled by an official to indicate that their value had been used for the intended purpose. Unemployment insurance stamps were available for purchase at post offices, and employers were required to withhold a set proportion of an employee’s wage, while also making their own contributions, to purchase these stamps. The stamps would then be affixed to booklets, generally kept with the human resources or management unit of a company, and then submitted annually to the local Unemployment Insurance Commission office. Each employee would have a booklet every year held by each employer for whom he or she worked. To ensure that the wages withheld were going toward the purchase of unemployment insurance stamps, employees were permitted by law to inspect their booklets twice a month.

A colour photograph of a page from a used unemployment insurance booklet with seven attached unemployment insurance stamps, dated May, June and July 1949.

A used Unemployment Insurance Commission booket from May to July 1949 (MIKAN 4937508)

A colour photograph of a page from a used unemployment insurance booklet with several attached unemployment insurance stamps, dated October and November 1949. The stamps are very colourful, and there is a handwritten note with a date and initials.

Caption: A used Unemployment Insurance Commission booklet from October and November 1949 (MIKAN 4937509)

At the launch of the unemployment insurance program, many forms of employment were not eligible for coverage. These included agriculture, fishing, forestry and logging, hunting and trapping, air and water transportation services, medicine, nursing, teaching, military, police, and civil services. Over time, more forms of employment were made eligible for coverage. Most notably, in 1957 employment in the fishing industry was covered, providing a much-needed income guarantee to people in the newly confederated province of Newfoundland and throughout the Maritimes. At first, existing stamps were overprinted with the image of a fish to indicate their intended use in the fishing industry. In later years, fishing unemployment insurance stamps were issued without an overprint.

A colour photograph of a block of 50 specimen red unemployment insurance stamps.

Unemployment insurance stamps from 1959 (MIKAN 4933286)

Among the various types of revenue stamps used by federal and provincial governments, unemployment insurance stamps are relatively scarce. This is because under the program’s legislative act and regulations, it was illegal to sell unused stamps, and only an employer or an employer’s human resources designate could be in lawful possession of unused stamps. Further, most of the booklets and used stamps submitted to the Unemployment Insurance Commission as well as most of the unused stamps were intentionally destroyed after their designated five years of retention. Also, unsold stamps were returned from post offices to the Unemployment Insurance Commission for destruction once they were no longer eligible to be sold, which happened when changes to unemployment insurance premiums required stamps to be issued in new denominations.

The Danny Leong collection

It is thus fortunate that Library and Archives Canada was able to acquire the Danny Leong Unemployment Insurance Stamp collection (R15771), which includes more than 11,000 stamps, unemployment insurance booklets from all the years of their use, and other associated materials. Both Danny Leong and his widow, Violet Anne Leong, were employees of the Unemployment Insurance Commission in British Columbia. Through this employment, Danny Leong was able to collect specimens of the stamps and booklets that were no longer needed for business use, training or reference in the office.

Most of the stamps in this collection are pre-cancelled specimens, printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company in Ottawa and forwarded to the Unemployment Insurance Commission as examples of stamps to be issued and sold at post offices. The collection also includes specimen and used insurance booklets, possibly retained for training purposes. The most curious item is a singular engraved die proof dated March 1959. This unique proof is for a never-issued agriculture unemployment insurance stamp—as mentioned above, agriculture was not covered by unemployment insurance during this period. Evidently, consideration was given to including agricultural work in the program, and this consideration was serious enough to have involved having a stamp for that purpose designed and engraved. In discussion of this item, Yves Baril attributed the work as most likely that of the Canadian Bank Note Company’s letter engraver Donald Mitchell, while the design appears to be that of Harvey Prosser, with supervision by John Francis Mash.

A colour photograph of a die proof of an orange agriculture stamp.

Unissued agriculture unemployment insurance stamp die proof, from March 12, 1959 (MIKAN 4933808)

The use of revenue stamps and unemployment insurance booklets to record payments for insurance continued until the early 1970s. Thereafter, the program was reformed with computerized records and the first issuing of Record of Employment forms, which are still in use. Most importantly, the 1971 reform of the Unemployment Insurance Act made coverage almost universal regardless of industry. The final issue of unemployment insurance stamps, printed in 1968, went mostly unused, with only a few used examples having ever been found by collectors. Of interest to both those who study philately and labour history in Canada, the Danny Leong Unemployment Insurance Stamp collection is available for consultation at Library and Archives Canada. For further reading on Canadian revenue stamps, including unemployment insurance stamps, Edward Zaluski’s Canada Revenues is an outstanding resource.

A colour photograph of a sheet of gold unemployment insurance stamps overprinted with SPECIMEN.

A sheet of unused unemployment insurance stamps from 1948 (MIKAN 4933742)


James Bone is an archivist in the Social Life and Culture Private Archives Division of the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

A deportation ledger and the story of a Japanese Canadian deportee

By R.L. Gabrielle Nishiguchi

A black-and-white photograph of a group of women with a child standing in front of luggage and crates.

A group of Japanese Canadian deportees, who had been interned during the Second World War, waiting for a train to take them to a ship bound for Japan. Slocan City, British Columbia, 1946. Credit: Tak Toyota (c047398)

For just one evening, on September 20, 2018, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will exhibit a bound, time-worn 1946 ledger with a blue cover. This small exhibit is part of “Revisiting Japanese Canadian Redress: Conference on the 30th Anniversary of the Agreement,” an event co-hosted by LAC and the Ottawa Japanese Community Association.

Why is this ledger so important? The pink pages, imprinted with fading purple Gestetner ink, show the names of 3,964 Japanese Canadians—among them almost 2,000 Canadian-born children—who were deported to war-ravaged Japan in 1946. The deportees represented about one fifth of some 20,000 Japanese Canadians who were forcibly removed from the West Coast in 1942. Each person’s entry includes the following information: registration number, date of birth, sex, marital status, national status, the place of departure, whether the person had signed the survey form (more about this below), and remarks such as “mental hospital,” “mentally unbalanced [and] unable to sign,” “New Denver Sanitorium,” “illeg[itimate],” “adopted,” “common law” and “Canadian Army.”

The word “Repatriates” is handwritten on the cover in fountain-pen ink. “Repatriation” is the expression used by the Canadian government to describe what scholarship and research have shown amounted to deportation. This term is often paired with the word “voluntary” (as we shall see, it was not). By definition, Canadian-born children whose only connection to Japan was their racial origin could not be “repatriated” to Japan.

Beside certain names are handwritten ballpoint and fountain-ink annotations. LAC has other copies of bound ledgers similar to the one on display, but what makes this particular copy so valuable are the handwritten annotations it contains. These annotations appear to be citations from statutes or Orders in Council (e.g., Privy Council Order 7356, December 15, 1945) that indicate how Canadian immigration officials would be able to prevent certain deportees from returning to Canada.

Recognizing the value and the historical significance of the ledger, LAC immediately scanned the pages to preserve the information they contained.

By doing so, LAC took steps to preserve the power of a name in our country’s memory. The names and information about the deportees bear silent but powerful witness to the suffering of those 3,964 men, women and children who ended up in a defeated and starving Japan and who were effectively barred from returning to Canada solely on the basis of their racial origin.

A black-and-white photograph of three men lifting a crate.

Three Japanese Canadian men, one of whom could be 42-year-old Ryuichi Hirahara (Registration Number 02553), loading a crate. Mr. Hirahara and his 40-year-old wife Kazu Hirahara (Registration Number 02554) were both Japanese nationals and interned in Slocan City, British Columbia. The shipping label is addressed to “Ryuichi Hirahara” at an address in Wakayama City, Japan. Mr. Hirahara requested that his belongings be held for him at the Wakayama Train Station, since he could not be sure that his ancestral home had survived the war. He did know that train stations would be among the first buildings to be rebuilt, since trains were critical to rebuilding Japan’s infrastructure. The Hiraharas were deported to Japan in 1946. Credit: Tak Toyota [Translation: Dr. Henry Shibata] (c047391)

The deportee: Henry Shibata

At the “Revisiting Japanese Canadian Redress” event on September 20, participants not only will be able to view the ledger, but also can meet 88-year-old Canadian-born Henry Shibata, who was deported to Japan in 1946 and whose name is inscribed in the ledger on display.

In the ledger, beside his name and the names of all six of his Canadian-born siblings, we find handwritten annotations (which appear to be statute citations). If these citations are indeed equivalent to the annotations referring to Privy Council Order 7356—the order that barred the return of any deported naturalized Japanese Canadians—then the Canadian government’s intention was to bar Henry and his siblings from returning to Canada.

A black-and-white photograph of two men standing in front of an iron gate, with a London police officer behind them to the left.

The Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King and Mr. Norman Robertson attending the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, London, England, May 1, 1944. Around this time, Norman Robertson, Under Secretary of State for External Affairs, and his special assistant Gordon Robertson (no relation) developed the deportation plan approved by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. (c015134)

The survey that would change everything

In the spring of 1945, the government of Canada surveyed every Japanese Canadian 16 years or older, including those in internment camps and even patients being treated in a psychiatric hospital, and compelled each person to choose whether he or she would go to Japan or east of the Rockies. Signing a form—which was part of this massive survey—and choosing to go to Japan was treated as prima facie evidence of disloyalty to Canada by the federal government, and an automatic cause for segregation and deportation. This information was expressly not provided to the Japanese Canadians forced to make this life-altering choice.

They did not understand what they were signing: in effect, their application for deportation. In fact, several of the annotations in the ledger, written by a bureaucrat, even include the phrase “app[lication] for deportation.” The survey was conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Japanese Canadians who had been interned in detention camps in the interior of British Columbia, who found themselves forced to work on Prairie sugar beet farms to keep their families together, who were forced to work in isolated road camps, or who had been interned in prisoner-of-war internment camps for protesting their separation from their wives and children, were discouraged and afraid for their futures. Many had survived three long years in internment camps, where they could not move beyond camp boundaries without a pass.

A black-and-white photograph of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer seated at a table examining papers with many men around him

Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable checking documents of Japanese Canadians being forced to abandon their homes and go to internment camps, 1942. Credit: Tak Toyota (c047387)

A black-and-white photograph of rows of internment camp dwellings.

Internment camp for Japanese Canadians, Lemon Creek, British Columbia, June 1945. Credit: Jack Long (a142853)

Why did the deportees sign to go to Japan?

Pressure began with the community’s forced relocation from the West Coast in 1942. Then, starting in 1943, their property—held in trust by the federal Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property—had been auctioned off without their consent. Internees had been forced to live off the monies realized from these sales, essentially paying for their own internment. Moreover, internment camp supervisors were graded on how many signed forms they could obtain.

Those Japanese Canadians who ended up signing were the most vulnerable internees: persons with family trapped ‎in Japan, single-parent families and psychiatric patients (some of whom were too sick to sign). Some with limited English-language skills felt that they were too old or too destitute to start their lives over in typically hostile communities to the east. There were also some older Canadian-born children who felt compelled to accompany their aging or sick parents to Japan.

In the case of young Henry Shibata’s family, interned in Lemon Creek, British Columbia, parents Hatsuzo and Tomiko had family in Hiroshima and had not heard whether anyone had survived the atomic bomb. Henry’s father, Hatsuzo, also felt that his own lack of written English would make it next to impossible to start over at the age of 52 in Eastern Canada. With the birth of his child Hisashi in the Lemon Creek internment camp, Hatsuzo Shibata now had a wife and seven children to support.

During the “Revisiting Japanese Canadian Redress” event on September 20, the deportation ledger will be opened to page 394, the page with the Shibata family entry. At this event, Dr. Henry Shibata will see his name in this ledger for the very first time, 72 years after he sailed to Japan on the SS General Meigs. Now 88 years old and a renowned Canadian surgical oncologist, he will see the original ledger page recording his family’s deportation.

A black-and-white photograph of three men standing in front of a ship.

Japanese Canadians being deported to Japan after the Second World War on the United States Army Transport SS General Meigs at Canadian Pacific Railway Pier A in Vancouver, British Columbia. Left to right: Corporal R.A. Davidson, Royal Canadian Mounted Police; C.W. Fisher; T.B. Pickersgill, Commissioner of Japanese Placement, Department of Labour, June 16, 1946. (a119024)

Despite the brutal and unspeakable hardships endured by Henry and his family in Hiroshima—a city turned to cinders by the first atomic bomb—Henry managed to graduate from Hiroshima Medical School. Dr. Shibata returned to Canada in 1961, after spending four years in the United States studying to become a surgeon. Through his expertise, Dr. Shibata has helped save many Canadian lives. He retired as a Professor Emeritus of McGill University in 2015.

The above-mentioned ledger, with its annotations, was the practical means of barring the return of the deportees. A senior civil servant succinctly expressed the intention of the annotations. On May 4, 1950, Arthur MacNamara, the Deputy Minister of Labour, wrote to Humphrey Mitchell, the Minister of Labour: “The External Affairs Department seem inclined to agree that men who were born in Canada and who … were sent to Japan might now be allowed to come back. This seems to me a matter on which there should be masterly inactivity. Even in the case of men or women born in Canada it does seem to me that they should be ‘allowed to suffer for their sins.’ After all they chose to go to Japan; they were not compelled.” (RG27, Volume 661, File 23-2-18, Deputy Minister of Labour Arthur MacNamara to Minister of Labour Humphrey Mitchell)

Co-Lab challenge

LAC’s new crowdsourcing tool, Co-Lab, gives Canadians the chance to collaborate with LAC by using their personal computers. LAC plans to host the ledger images in a Co-Lab challenge in the coming months, but you can see these images right now using Collection SearchBeta.

Canadians who have been moved by the story of the deportations and who wish to help keep the names of the deportees alive will have the opportunity to collaborate with LAC and transcribe the 3,964 names and the associated information. LAC hopes that a searchable transcription of the ledger will enable reseachers to decipher the critical handwritten annotations and compile more statistical information on the deportees.

We cannot change history and prevent those deportations, but we can solve the mystery of the annotations. We can also make sure that each entry remains accessible to the deportees, their families and researchers around the world, so that all of us can experience the power of these names; so that we shall never forget the human suffering embodied in them or the talent and promise we prevented from enriching Canada.

In the meantime, LAC has compiled photographs of Japanese Canadian internment in a Co-Lab challenge and is seeking your help to write descriptions and add keywords that further contextualize these historic photographs and increase the “discoverability” of these records. Try the challenge now!

Know more about the Co-Lab tool and the Collection SearchBeta by reading this previous blog post: Introducing Co-Lab: your tool to collaborate on historical records

More on LAC’s website

Learn about the deportations, the internment camps in Canada and the Redress campaign, or consult our major collections, by visiting the Japanese Canadians web page.


R.L. Gabrielle Nishiguchi is an archivist in the Society, Employment, Indigenous and Governmental Affairs Section of the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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 (MIKAN 3587745)

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 (MIKAN 3353752)

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 (MIKAN 3350533)

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 (MIKAN 3613396)

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 (MIKAN 3199681)

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.