Montreal Gazette


He and fellow members of porters union made invaluable contributi­ons

- MARLENE JENNINGS Marlene Jennings is a former president of the Quebec Community Groups Network and a former Liberal MP. She sits on the boards of several community organizati­ons.

For months now my head has been swirling around all the talk about Canada's immigratio­n levels and influx of temporary workers and the supposed threat they pose to Quebec. Shrill voices have warned of the “Louisianiz­ation” of our province and imminent demise of its French language, culture and identity.

Quebec has recently seen teachers, nurses and other public-sector workers go on strike for better pay and conditions. A significan­t number of health-care workers are here on temporary work visas; others are immigrants with permanent resident status. Which brings me to something else that's been on my mind — or, rather, someone else: my father.

Preston James Jennings, Sr. was born on March 25, 1914 in Alabama when racial segregatio­n — Jim Crow laws — and lynching were the common currency of that and too many other American states. He was a descendant of African slaves, the eldest of eight children with which my paternal grandparen­ts were blessed. In 1944, my father was recruited by Canadian Pacific Railway to come to Canada to work on a temporary work visa.

Initially he worked the Montreal-vancouver run, 14-day shifts on duty 24/7. Later he worked the Montreal-winnipeg run until his retirement in 1979 at age 65.

If it had not been for him, Stanley Grizzle and other members of the sleeping car porters union, Canada might not have adopted its first Fair Employment Practices Act in 1953, which prohibited racial discrimina­tion by both employers and trade unions. Before this, most if not all trade unions refused membership of Black employees. That was the reason the sleeping car porters formed their own union.

My father was the secretary-treasurer of the Montreal division of the Brotherhoo­d of Sleeping Car Porters. I can well imagine he was actively involved in many of its campaigns for social change, including the 1960s overhaul of Canada's immigratio­n law that removed most of its discrimina­tory provisions. I remember days and evenings when Dad was home, seated at our dining-room table, hosting a meeting of his fellow trade unionists, writing up meeting notes, or preparing financial accounts of the Montreal division.

Neither my siblings nor I grasped the importance of what our father and his union brethren were doing. It was only after his death, on Jan. 5, 1981, that we began to understand the magnitude of their contributi­ons to Canadian and Quebec society, which today enjoys a host of social programs — public education, universal health care, prescripti­on-drug insurance, affordable daycare, among others — that make us justifiabl­y proud.

Of course, I know our education and healthcare networks are embattled at the moment and have been for years, and there are reasons to fear further erosion. But we worry because we appreciate and are proud of these universal programs.

This helps explain why Quebec's public-sector workers have enjoyed widespread public support during their strike actions and labour negotiatio­ns.

As for my dad, his temporary work visa was renewed several times before he was given permanent resident status. He helped build a strong trade union in Quebec and raised eight children, most of whom are fluently bilingual like me. And we, in turn, have continued to contribute in the building of Quebec society, which I know is the envy of many around the world, and rightfully so.

So when we talk about immigrants or temporary workers in terms of their perceived threat to our collective identity, I would ask that we think of Preston James Jennings, Sr. and so many others like him who, through their invaluable contributi­ons, made and continue to make Canada and Quebec a more just, equitable and vibrant society.

Let's not look upon them as threats. They make us better, not worse.

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