A glimpse of black workers’ history in Vancouver

Workers from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Workers from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

By Daniel Tseghay

British Columbia isn’t known for its black population. Only about a single per cent of the greater Vancouver area is populated by black people. Those who’ve been here have been displaced, like the members of Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley. But black people have been here. And the black experience has also been a labour experience.

Racist attacks and discrimination forced black people out of California in the mid-19th century, bringing them to Vancouver Island and areas around the lower Fraser River. They worked as skilled tradesmen and general labourers. Around the Fraser River, the abundance of salmon meant they worked as canners.

One of the first people to light a spark on the simmering industry was John Sullivan Deas, often described as a mixed-raced black man.

John St. John, originally from Barbados, was one of the founders of the Lumber Handlers’ Union in 1906, representing primarily Indigenous workers, and affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World.

Histories like these have gone largely unnoticed by the general public, but they haven’t been forgotten completely. Anthony Brown, a longshoreman in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 500, produced a documentary in 1994, called Go Do Some Great Things, about the province’s original black migrants. And their experiences as workers takes a central place.

There was also the Vancouver chapter of the US-based Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, made up of black car porters in the 1920s and 30s. Some of the first black people in Vancouver, living around Hogan’s Alley, were porters.

They could be fired without notice, they depended primarily on tips, and they were refused promotions to the position of conductor despite often unofficially doing that work. Their efforts to unionize were, in turn, often squashed.

But, throughout Canada and the United States, porters organized. On the corner of Main and Prior in Vancouver, there used to be a porters’ club, where they could meet and talk about their conditions and what they had to do collectively. The Vancouver chapter was born and it grew, and, in time, they fought discrimination while agitating for better wages, job protections, and benefits. And they won.

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