IDEAS AFTERNOON

Paul Kennedy's profile of Montreal's Little Burgundy

As part of ongoing IDEAS coverage of work-related mobility issues throughout Canada and around the world, Paul Kennedy profiles the Montreal neighbourhood of "Little Burgundy". For much of the 20th century, this vibrant, overwhelmingly black community was home to many of the railroad porters who worked on coast-to-coast trains for both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. By definition, their job description required them to be "away from home" for two weeks at a time.
Atwater Street Looking North (notice the train tracks that run through the centre of Little Burgundy). (Courtesy of Nancy Oliver-Mackenzie)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Paul Kennedy profiles the Montreal neighbourhood of Little Burgundy. For much of the 20th century, this vibrant, overwhelmingly black community, was home to many of the railroad porters who worked on coast-to-coast trains for both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. By definition, their job description required them to be away from home for two weeks at a time.

As many as 90 per cent of the adult males living in Little Burgundy were employed doing railroad jobs. Most of the porters were highly educated — often with university degrees — although much of the work they did was both menial and demeaning. Their wives stayed home to raise their families, and often made money working as maids in upper-class Westmount homes, which was "symbolically" just up the hill. The children grew up to frequent the local jazz clubs, where homegrown talents like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones (both of their fathers were railway porters) learned to play with touring stars from Harlem and Chicago.

A sleeping car porter in Montreal. (Courtesy of Nancy Oliver-Mackenzie)

Little Burgundy is still a proud Montreal neighbourhood, located just to the west of Windsor Station, and just down the hill from Westmount.

Paul Kennedy speaks to Steven High, who teaches oral history at Concordia University, in Montreal. He is also a participant in On the Move, a seven-year research project investigating work-related mobility issues throughout Canada and around the world.  It's the basis for this episode of an ongoing IDEAS series of the same name.

On a walking tour of Little Burgundy, Steven High tells Paul Kennedy, "Oral history has a power. Sometimes we think that history is sort of 'up there' somewhere, out of reach. I think it's a reminder that history inhabits each of us, and each of our families. Our communities have histories that are so important. Ordinary people lead extraordinary lives. A lot of this work we're doing on oral history is based here in Little Burgundy. We're getting at this history through people's life stories.

Some of the stories heard in this episode come from the extensive oral history archive at Concordia University. Part of which were collected and curated by some of Steven's students.

The Congregation of Union United Church. (Courtesy of Nancy Oliver-Mackenzie.)

**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy,

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.