British Columbia

50 years later, Militant Mothers of Raymur celebrated in Vancouver

In 1971, 25 women from an inner-city housing project blocked trains and stared down governments and powerful business interests in an inspired act of civil disobedience.

In 1971, 25 women from the Raymur housing project blockaded rail lines in a fight for their children's safety

Mothers and a child stand in defiance of an approaching CN Rail train in March of 1971. (CBC)

The 25 mothers who blockaded rail lines in East Vancouver 50 years ago in a fight for their children's safe passage to and from school are finally having their inspired act of civil disobedience recognized by the city.

Signs commemorating the newly renamed Militant Mothers of Raymur Overpass have been installed at either end of the bright blue structure spanning the rail lines that run north-south through Strathcona.

There's also a plaque that hints at the mostly forgotten story of the women — many of them single mothers — who stared down trains, and battled governments and powerful businessmen until they capitulated and agreed to build an overpass.

The late Judith Stainsby is named as the leader of the Militant Mothers of Raymur. But daughter Meg says her mom would be embarrassed to be singled out were she still alive. 

Watch: CBC archive footage of the mothers blocking a train. (Video is silent.)

Militant Mothers of Raymur block a train in January 1971

4 years ago
Duration 0:39
A group of East Vancouver mothers battled governments and railways in 1971 to get an overpass built so their children could go safely to and from school.

"I think it's great that the history is being acknowledged," said Meg Stainsby "But it was very much a collective of women, of moms ... who had a common interest in keeping their kids safe."

The tracks in question cross a one-block route between the Raymur Place housing project (now called Stamps Place) and Admiral Seymour Elementary School. 

The newly renamed Militant Mothers of Raymur overpass in East Vancouver. Admiral Seymour School can be seen in the background. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

Stainsby said it was common for kids from "the projects" to roll under shunting cars or jump over the couplings of slow moving trains to get to the other side. One boy had his feet crushed by a train in the late 1960s.

In January of 1971, after years of promises a safe crossing was coming, the Raymur mothers staged their first blockade. 

Stainsby was seven and recalls going with her two older brothers to visit their mom on the tracks.

"I remember being a little afraid that she might get hurt but also deeply proud of her," said Stainsby. 

Watch: Mother Carolyn Jerome confronts a CN Rail representative:

Mother Carolyn Jerome confronts a CN Rail spokesman.

4 years ago
Duration 0:51
A group of East Vancouver women blockaded rail lines in 1971 in a successful effort to get an overpass built.

"It chokes me up now, but I remember my mom talking about the first time they stared down a train that was threatening to not stop. It was very confrontational."

An agreement was struck with CN Rail not to run trains in the half hour before and after school. Not only did the company never live up to the promise, its conductors launched a not-so-silent campaign of harassment.

Long before it was officially renamed, 'All Hail the Mothers' was painted on the overpass deck in an unofficial acknowledgement. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

"There was basically a vindictive reliance on train whistles in the middle of the night —  those kinds of dirty tricks," said Stainsby. "And of course this was 1971, so the women were basically told to get back to where they belong."

Undaunted, the group erected a second blockade in March of 1971, this time pitching a tent on the tracks for two nights and three days.

By this time, a headline in the Vancouver Sun calling them the Militant Mothers of Raymur was starting to stick, and public sentiment was swinging in their favour.

Watch: Mother Jean Amos talks about successful court challenge repealing injunctions served by CN:

Mother Jean Amos  talks about successful court challenge repealing injunctions served by CN.

4 years ago
Duration 0:35
In 1971, a group mothers blockaded rail lines in East Vancouver.

The women argued their case at city hall, fought off injunctions with the help of a volunteer lawyer and simply refused to give up.

Eventually, their demands were met in the form of a legally-binding document that guaranteed the construction of a pedestrian overpass. The Keefer Street Rail Overpass, as it was named, opened in time for the new school year.

That the Militant Mothers of Raymur are back in the spotlight 49 years after their victory is no fluke.

Two years ago, former Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer suggested the group be included in an initiative to acknowledge women and minorities whose civic contributions had gone largely unrecognized.

A plaque on the east side of the overpass tells a little of the story of how it came to be. (Karin Larsen/CBC)

"A lot of Vancouverites have no clue how that overpass came to be," said Reimer, "so this was an opportunity to lift that story up."

According to Reimer, the Militant Mothers are well known in Vancouver's activist communities, often held up as a symbol of what's possible even when you feel powerless.

She also feels there is a timeliness to the re-emergence of their story. 

"We're having this very lively debate right now around the appropriateness of blocking rail lines as a legitimate form of protest. And yet here is an example of what happens when communities have done this."

"Those mothers acted out of frustration and fear for their children's lives," she said. "They finally took this step and were ultimately successful."