Case Study: Race, Unions, and Black Sleeping Car Porters

By: Natalie Zacharewski

Natalie Zacharewski

Education Coordinator

Natalie is a museum education professional based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a passion for creating learning opportunities for students of all ages through immersive, inquiry-based experiences. She has worked in museums and heritage institutions across Canada and the United States such as Museums of Burlington, the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum and Colonial Williamsburg. She has held the role of Faculty Instructor for the Public Programs course in the Certificate in Museum Studies Program with the Alberta Museums Association. She has also worked with the British Columbia Museums Association as Museum Education Consultant, assisting small museums develop educational programs. Natalie holds a Master of Arts in History from the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian, American and gender history.

Case Study: Race Unions and Black Sleeping Car PortersDownload


The Nine Hour Movement and the adoption of the Trade Unions Act 1872 will provide a framework for examining labour events across Canadian history. 

In this case study, learners will explore how race and labour movements intertwined in 20th-century Canada. Black sleeping car porters were an important part of the railway systems, and Canada’s expansion west. They supported travellers in a variety of ways, from baggage assistance to nursing ill passengers, all while facing harsh working conditions and discrimination. Despite this, predominantly white labour organizations prevented them from joining. Unions such as the Order of Sleeping Car Porters and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Canadian chapter) would advocate for improved labour status. 

Grade Level 

Grades 5–9


Case Study Overview

With the opening of the railroads across Canada, sleeping car porters played a vital role in the safety and comfort of riders across the rails. Black men, who had limited employment options in Canada, applied for these jobs on lines such as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the Canada Atlantic Railway, and the Intercolonial Railway. From the late 19th into the early/mid-20th century, sleeping car porters assisted riders with everything from baggage assistance, to looking after ill children, to watching out for thieves. Despite their vital role in rail travel, they faced racism and discrimination while receiving low wages, working 72-hour shifts with no sleeping quarters, and having to eat out of passengers’ sight during sleeping hours. Black sleeping car porters were forced to maintain a servile position, relying on tips with dismissals commonplace. 

Although unions such as the Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees existed to advocate for railroad workers, membership was not permitted for Black workers; this was made explicit in the union’s constitution between 1908 and 1919. As a result, Winnipeg sleeping car porters John Arthur Robinson, J.W.Barber, B.F. Jones, and P.White formed the Order of Sleeping Car Porters in April 1917. Two years later, they had negotiated contracts with two separate railway companies (Canadian Northern Railway and Grand Trunk Railway). CPR did not accept this unionization and by the 1920s had dismissed 36 porters for union activity. A union for Black sleeping car porters fought for an increase in monthly salary, two weeks of paid vacation after one year of service, overtime pay, and better working conditions, including a sleeping berth. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was established in the United States in the mid-1920s, eventually growing to the world’s largest Black union, with members across the US, Canada, and Mexico. The Canadian chapter owned real estate such as union halls, had a self-directed research organization, and inspired connection with the civil rights movement on a larger scale. 

Want to See More? 

Check out these videos from Historica Canada and Black Strathcona!

Inquiry-Based Questions 

As a large class group, discuss these questions: 

In this context, how might race or ethnicity affect what job a person could apply to?
How do you think you would perform on the job with these working conditions? (for example: little sleep, poor treatment from travellers, limited breaks) 

Journalling Activity

Artifact Study 

“Every porter was in charge of one sleeping car on a train. Because of the demeaning names they were called by passengers, such as ‘George’ or ‘boy,’ porters won the right in their first collective agreement with CPR in 1945 to have plaques erected in each car stating their names.” Image courtesy of Stanley G. Grizzle/Virtual Museum

Respond to these questions as a class:  

What was the connection between racism and calling Black men “George”? 
Why was it important for workers to share their own names? 
How do you think knowing someone’s name affects the way you treat them? Does this impact working conditions? 

Connection to Current Event

  1. Read this article: “Union Construction’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Charade” by Travis Watson.
  1. In groups, discuss these questions and reflect on your responses in your journals: 

How Does This Relate to the Nine Hour Movement? 

In preparation for the CAPSTONE PROJECT, explore StoryMapping in the classroom along with learners. Check out these links on the Defining Moments Canada website: a digital tour of the Nine Hour Movement route and All for 9 & 9 for All.

Capstone Project

Create a StoryMap of important locations in the history of Black sleeping car porters.

This narrative is a Canada-wide story, so try to map out as many locations across the nation as you can. 

What Is Storymapping? 

Storymapping involves telling a story through maps or other multimedia like text, images, and videos. The Esri GIS platform allows students to create shareable stories with a range of customizable themes where the creative possibilities are endless.

Using these resources as a starting point…

Identify and research these important locations across Canada in the history of Black sleeping car porters and their labour organization. 

Black Sleeping Car Porters” by Travis Tomchuk for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

Sleeping Car Porters in Canada” by Channon Oyeniran for the Canadian Encyclopedia

Black Strathcona

Using these resources as a class…

Create your own storymap, either as a whole group or within smaller groups. 

Story Maps

StoryMap: All for 9 & 9 for All

See more instructional guides here:

Need a further reference? Check out Renee Allen’s The Momentum of the Nine Hour Movement” for a guiding example. 

Need a marking rubric?

Check out Renee Allen’s “Co-create Success Criteria for Storymapping” fromThe Momentum of the Nine Hour Movement”.

Co-create Success Criteria for Storymapping  

Collaborate with students to create a list of criteria they can use to evaluate the effectiveness of their storymaps. Evaluation might be structured in creative formats, including:
Success criteria might consider:


Foster, Cecil. They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada (2019). Windsor: Biblioasis. 

Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. North of the Color Line, Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870–1955 (2010). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 

Oyeniran, Channon. “Sleeping Car Porters in Canada”, Canadian Encyclopedia (2019),

Tomchuk, Travis. “Black Sleeping Car Porters”, Canadian Museum of Human Rights (2014),

Case Study: Race Unions and Black Sleeping Car PortersDownload