The Porter reveals Black history you won't read about in textbooks
By Steven Sandor | February 18, 2022
Violet King’s name echoes in Alberta history. In the early 1950s, after graduating from the University of Alberta’s law school, she became the first Black woman in this province’s history to pass the bar. She moved to the United States in the 1960s, famous for working as an executive for the YWCA and advancing civil rights causes.
King’s father was a sleeping car porter — one of many Black Canadians who found work on the trains that whisked wealthy passengers across the country. And King’s career was supported by the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — a union that, in Edmonton, was officially recognized in 1946.
And this little snippet of history is just one reason that The Porter promises to be not only an entertaining, but illuminating, television event. Created by Arnold Pinnock, the miniseries, which begins on CBC on Feb. 21, takes us back to an era when train travel was decked in luxury. And it shows how it was maintained by poorly paid, mistreated Black workers. Many Black neighbourhoods in Canada were formed close to rail stations in our major cities.
While the show is based in the Montreal Black railway community of St. Antoine, Pinnock feels that the story will resonate with viewers across the country.
I wanted to showcase that we are all part of this Canadiana,” he says. “And, collectively, these men and these women are weaved into the very fabric of this country, of our flag.”
And the idea for the show didn’t come from one place. As a stage performer, Pinnock travelled across the country. And, he enjoyed visiting museums wherever he went, looking for any shreds or hints of Black history. (Ironically, a lot of museums in Canada can be found in old, repurposed railway stations.) And, he noticed the role the railway played in Black history, no matter if he was in Ontario or Quebec, Alberta or British Columbia.
“What I loved to do was to go to museums,” he says. “Every little town. And I’d look around to see if there were any Black people, or I’d go around to the local public library to read about Black people. And the one common denominator that kept coming up was the porters. Back then, I knew nothing about porters. And, then, I thought porters were just an American thing. I didn’t realize it was a Canadian thing. And that’s what empowered me to dig deeper and deeper.
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“I didn’t really think of it as putting in work. I was empowering myself, the more I learned about people who looked like me having these experiences 100 years ago. And then I became obsessed. All I wanted to do was learn about these men.”
The Porter examines how Black workers were treated on the railways, and shows us why these workers finally began to organize, first in the United States, and then in Canada. And Pinnock says we all must wrestle with the racial history of Canada’s railway. We celebrate “the last spike” of the coast-to-coast Canadian Pacific Railway as being a unifying force in our country — but Pinnock says we have to acknowledge to whom the land once belonged, who built the railroad, and who ended up maintaining the railroad. It was a discussion he remembers having on set with an Indigenous crew member.
“For every 10,000 miles that these porters worked on these jobs, Chinese migrants laid those tracks and died,” says Pinnock. “And, for every 10,000 miles these Chinese migrants put down those tracks, Indigenous people’s lands were taken from them. I think of this as the domino effect of not knowing this history — not knowing the Indigenous people’s history or the history of the Chinese workers, and not knowing about these Black workers on these palaces on wheels.”
Another Edmonton Connection
Lorraine James, who was raised in Castle Downs and went to the Citadel Theatre School, appears in the miniseries. She says that, usually, when she’s gone for casting calls, being a Black actor makes her feel like “being a vegan at the Keg.”
She’s been through numbers of auditions in her career, and this is how she sees it:
“There will always be limits. There are always limits when it comes to people of colour. There’s always a disclaimer that we’re looking for people of every race, gender expression, sexuality and ability. But, I would see the green room would be filled with diverse types, but then once they picked their actors, it’s less diverse. It almost seems to be that they have to put the disclaimer out there, but, at the end of the day, they want what they want. I want to know if they didn’t choose me, it was because of something else I didn’t bring to the table.”
This series was a rarity. It was different. It puts Black creators front and centre. But, it took years for The Porter to be greenlit. Despite the massive box office receipts of a superhero film like Black Panther, or the horror crossover success of Jordan Peele, throughout the entertainment industry remains the stigma that Black stories are harder to sell.
“There’s this idea that nobody wants to see diversity, they want to see white heterosexual males between 18 and 35,” says James. “There’s this idea that this is what everybody wants, and everything else is considered on the fringe. A lot of people have been fed this idea.”
Maybe this story of Canada’s railroads, filled with intrigue, fighting spirit and music, will change minds. For me, seeing the first couple of episodes made me wonder why I really knew so little about this part of Canada’s history. Sadly, for many who watch the opening episode on Feb. 21, they’ll be as new to these chapters of Canadian history as I was.