In April 1854, when the Great Western Railway needed workers to guard its tracks against stray cattle and hog crossings it placed advertisements in Canada’s most important Black newspaper of the day, The Provincial Freeman, declaring that it sought African Canadians for the task [1]. Before the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese men working under deplorable conditions, laid down tracks for the transcontinental railroad and African Canadians worked as cooks and dining car attendants (known as “Sleeping Car Porters”) for the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), the major railroad in Ontario and Quebec that connected Toronto to Montreal. On 4 July 1886, the Pacific Express, the first scheduled Canadian Pacific transcontinental passenger train, arrived at Port Moody, British Columbia fifteen years after the province joined Confederation. It connected the country coast-to-coast via a 20,100 kilometre railway network, and became the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) company’s fulfillment of its 1881 promise to connect Eastern Canada to British Columbia. Like many histories, this one also involves the removal and exploitation of Indigenous peoples and lands.

“Hotel London Colored Staff,” photograph, June 27, 1931. Source: The Dawn of Tomorrow, front page.

The history of the railway is essential to BREC. At least since the 1860s, manufacturing had been markedly expanding in the main Ontario centres, stimulated by the railways that focused industrial activities in well-located places on their routes.[2] The GTR connected Toronto to cities across southern Ontario - Hamilton, Brantford, Guelph, London, Belleville, Kingston, and Ottawa - along with other towns, and with the opening of the CPR across the continent new markets of industrial growth opened up, but so too did new markets for mass entertainment. The Theatre Syndicate of New York were responsible for booking acts in North America, and while they may have used local agents, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ultimate decision about what and who appeared on stage in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal were made in the U.S. [3]. Also known as the “Theatres Trust,” the Theatre Syndicate (created in 1896) controlled 37 theatres and scheduled touring companies as they moved across North America from Montreal to Chicago, Detroit to Toronto [4]. 

American Hotel, Front St. E., northeast corner Yonge St., c. 1888. Source: Public Domain, see also Baldwin Collection, Toronto Public Library, B 8-70b.

The Queen’s Hotel, Northside Front St, between Bay and York Sts., c. 1930. Source: Public Domain.

Vaudeville performers might have come from all ethnic groups, and in all shapes, and sizes they were not all accommodated in the same hotels in the different cities. Theatre troupes in the nineteenth century were on the road 365 days of the year. Often performances were 1-night shows with no layovers or 1-night stays. In Canada, many hotels did not accept Black patrons. While this history is largely underreported, we can locate traces of it in the newspaper reporting. On September 21, 1881, for instance, The Globe reported on a racial discrimination against The Fisk Jubilee Singers in Toronto. The African American choral group was refused accommodation at five hotels in the city – The Queen’s (the north side of Front Street, between Bay and York streets), The Walker House (Front and York streets), The American Hotel (Front, northeast corner at Yonge), The Robinson House, and The Rossin House (southeast corner of King Street and York Street). “Now that the facts have become known,” the newspaper wrote, “we have no doubt many of the leading citizens of Toronto will gladly do as the leading citizens of Springfield did recently under similar circumstances – welcome the Singers to their private residences.” While Canada did not have a formal guidebook for Black travellers that provided a list of hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments throughout the country that served Black patrons, like the Negro Motorist Green Book, similar guides can be found inside the pages of the Dawn of Tomorrow catalogued on BREC.

Rossin House Postcard, 1910. Source: Public Domain, see also Baldwin Collection, Toronto Public Library, PC 413. 

“Canada’s Grand Trunk System,” advertisement, September 26, 1916. Source: The Canadian Gazette.

“Canadian Pacific Railway,” advertisement, April 27, 1888. Source: The Globe, p. 2.



[1] Sarah-Jane Mathieu, 2010. North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, p. 3.

[2] J.M.S. Careless, 1990. “The Cultural Setting: Ontario Society to 1914.” In Early Stages: Theatre in Ontario 1800-1914, ed. Ann Saddlemyer. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 37.

[3] Jonathan F. Vance, 2009. A History of Canadian Culture. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, p. 178.

[4] Robert Brockhouse, 2007. The Royal Alexandra Theatre: A Celebration of 100 Years. Toronto: McArthur and Company, p. 66.


Sleeping Car Porters

Black Strathcona, YouTube.






Using Format