Marlene Jennings was the first Black Quebecer elected to Parliament. She remembers, while growing up, needing to tiptoe around the house during the day when her father was home because he needed his sleep.
"When I was little, he did the run from Montreal to Vancouver and back," she said.
"And so he'd be gone for, like, 14 days straight. And that meant for those 14 days, he'd be lucky if he got an hour’s sleep, two hours’ sleep."
Preston Jennings came to Montreal from Alabama in the 1940s, one of many Black men from the United States to find work in Montreal as a Pullman car rail porter.
It was a prized job to have, but it involved its share of hardship. For one thing, many of the porters did their jobs while simply being called "George" or one of "George's boys" by passengers — even though their actual names were engraved on plaques in the cars George Pullman designed.
"And that's because to white people who were the majority of customers, all Black men looked the same," Jennings said. "So they just called them all George."
Cecil Foster is a professor at the University of Buffalo and author of a book called "They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada."
"They were always on their feet," he told CTV News.
"They were at the beck and call of passengers, and they had to be very careful to keep their distance. They were Black men and they were dealing with white passengers, and they had to be very careful around white women."
Much of the porters' work entailed menial jobs done for tips like shining shoes, which they often did while passengers slept.
The introduction of Pullman cars to Canada meant that passengers could cross virtually the entire country without staying in a hotel. But that also meant reinforcing social norms that were more associated with the American South than Canada.
"What the Black man provided, which was essentially a domestic, was the opportunity to have someone wait on you, to be your valet, to be your servant," said Montreal historian Dorothy Williams.
"And some people would say that harkened back to slave days."
Even though this was Canada, racism was still directed at the rail porters on a regular basis.
"Just because it was Montreal, don’t think it was any different," Williams said.
"What was different were the social conditions around that. One thing Blacks had here, which they could not get in the States, was their safety."
While persevering at work, Canada's Black porters also fought for, and won, much bigger change that made a lasting mark on the country.
They endured a segregated union structure on the railroad, being banned from joining the conventional rail union. Instead, they formed another type of organization that they called unions, even though they weren’t recognized as such.
These organizations ended up being extremely influential in shaping Canada’s working conditions and immigration policies.
"These were Black associations that over time negotiated their way to get a seat at the table," Williams said.
For instance, a group of rail porters met with Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent in 1954 to push for an end to an immigration policy that encouraged white migration to Canada to the exclusion of visible minorities.
"In many respects, those porters were on the forefront of Canada being the multicultural country it is today," Foster said.
They were also extremely influential in shaping the cultural life of Montreal. Rufus Rockhead, the impresario who founded the Rockhead Paradise jazz club, worked as a porter, as did the father of jazz great Oscar Peterson.
They also founded several Black cultural institutions and organizations that coalesced around the neighbourhood now known as Little Burgundy.
"Little Burgundy and areas like that were railroad towns," Foster said. "And the big struggle really took place from the 1930s, '40s, and onwards. Montreal was very much a centre for it."