Monday, April 22, 2024



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BOOKS MEAN different things to different people.

One can’t help but marvel at the intestinal fortitude of the thousands of men who left their respective West Indian birthplaces in search of a better life . . .

To some, they are the quintessential sources of entertainment that spawn a hearty laugh at a time when things seem to be going to hell.

To a second group, books are an extension of the classroom experiences, providing valuable information about institutions and people, even an individual we hold in awe.

Stitch those elements together in a digital world characterised by the ubiquitous presence of social media, and you would understand why a new, informative and well-written book, They Call Me George: The Untold Story Of Black Train Porters And The Birth Of Modern Canada, deserves a special place in public libraries and private book collections across Canada, Barbados and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

It was written by Cecil Foster.

“It goes to the heart of the transformation of Canada as a multicultural society,” said Foster, a Bajan-Canadian who has written several works of fiction and non-fiction that put him among the top tier of writers in the North American colossus. A product Harrison College, Foster knows how to tell a story with clarity and excitement.

“It’s a fascinating story of marginalisation on one part, but the redemptive part was how these men banded together and fought for the Canada that we live in today,” he added. “If they did not fight for Canada to become a multicultural country, we would not to be in the Canada that everybody says is the No. 1 country in the world.”

Much of the tale he wrote about can be traced to the 1950s when Sir Grantley Adams, Barbados’ first Premier, and his Minister of Labour Mencea Cox, battled for the inclusion of black West Indians in Canada’s immigration scheme, arguing that Canada should “open her doors both to skilled and unskilled workers from the British West Indies”.

Back then, Canada had some of the developed world’s toughest and indeed most racist immigration restrictions that discriminated openly against Blacks. And to make sure the case was made to the highest level of Canadian society, Sir Grantley took it to John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister, once reminding him that “we are all British subjects”.

But the argument for greater access by Blacks to Canada wasn’t left entirely to political leaders.

“The Black Train Porters” themselves made it to senior Canadian officials, including ministers of immigration and members of the Canadian parliament.

Reading the book, one can’t help but marvel at the intestinal fortitude of the thousands of men who left their respective West Indian birthplaces in search of a better life, but ended up helping to change a country for the better.

These overworked and often sleepdeprived men, who were not allowed to have an identity in Canada – they were all called “George” – did more than carry the luggage, shine the shoes and make up the beds on the trains reserved for the rich.

They endured the indignities heaped upon them, but were always well dressed and smiling. Their reward, legacy if you will, can be seen in their children and grandchildren who today occupy top national and provincial positions as judges, lawmakers, famous authors, research scientists and corporate executives.

We owe a debt of gratitude to them, and to Foster for his masterful and insightful research and writing. Just ask Sir Louis Tull, a prominent public figure in Barbados, and Elombe Mottley, uncle of Prime Minister Mia Mottley.

Both men were once university students in Canada.


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