Category: Cal Best Project

Black Workers in Canada: The 20th Century Experience

Black Canadians, and Black Canadian workers in particular, have too often been a forgotten part of Canadian history. As part of Black History Month, we hope to share a little of their experience and what it means to our lives today.

Contributions During Wartime

Black Canadians played an extremely important role in both of the World Wars. In 1916, Canadian enlistment figures fell dramatically below the year-end goal. On the offer of Reverend C.W. no2 constructionWashington of Edmonton, military officials authorized the creation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first large Black military unit in Canadian history. These soldiers served in France with the Canadian Forestry Corps. In addition, approximately 2,000 Black Canadian men, determined to fight on the front lines, managed to join regular units despite racial discrimination; their distinguished service earned some of the men medals for bravery.

These were by no means the only Black Canadians to contribute to Canada’s efforts in the First World War. Between 1914 and 1918, on their own and in collaboration with white groups, Black associations and individuals raised funds, worked in factories, and volunteered in hospitals and as labourers. Although barred from participation in Canada’s war effort, Black women in particular played an important role. They formed the Black Cross nurses (modeled on the Red Cross) to aid wounded soldiers and the Black community by providing medical services such as first aid, nutrition, health care, and childcare. Black women also worked in ammunition factories; these women were given the most dangerous jobs, such as working with explosives.

The Second World War

Initially, the Canadian military refused to enlist Black volunteers for the Second World War effort. As the war continued, however, many Blacks were accepted into the Regular Army and officer corps. Although segregation persisted until the end of the war, hundreds of Black Canadians served alongside whites in both Canada and Europe. As in the First World War, those at home assumed the responsibilities of the men and women who had gone overseas, working alongside whites in jobs across the country. The war allowed for a wider variety of roles for Black Canadians serving and sacrificing both at home and overseas. Their service stands as a measure of how Black Canadians were increasingly integrated into wider Canadian society.

The Porters’ Unions

In the 1920s, a wave of Blacks from the Caribbean had immigrated to Nova Scotia. They came to work in the steel mills in Cape Breton, although a great number became porters on the railway. Through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (the first Black railway union in North America) and the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, workers fought Jim Crow trade unionism and segregationist employment policies on Canadian rails. With growing political savvy, these groups used existing labour law to publicize discrimination in the Canadian workforce.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters has been noted as one of the greatest success stories for Black workers during the years of the Second World War. After the war, porters also played an important role in the campaign for human rights, particularly in efforts to end discrimination in railway employment. Through their actions, Black railway porters gained recognition for Black workers across Canada.

Legislating Change

On 14 March 1944, the Racial Discrimination Act made Ontario the first province to respond to social change. This landmark legislation prohibited the publication or display of any symbol, sign, or notice that conveyed ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination. This Act sparked other sweeping legislation across the country. The 1945 B.C. Social Assistance Act and the 1947 Saskatchewan Bill of Rights banned discrimination; in 1948 Canada signed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

leonard-braithwaiteThat same year, the federal Elections Act was passed, making race no longer a ground for exclusion from voting in federal elections. But it was not until September 12, 1963 that the first African-Canadian, Leonard Braithwaite, was elected to the provincial legislature as the Liberal member for Etobicoke, Ontario.

The Struggle Continues

In 1975, Black reformer Wilson Head created the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. Head devoted his life to civil rights activism in both the United States and Canada. His organization is still committed to fighting discrimination against all ethno-racial communities.

During this period, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists was established and a concerted effort was made for affirmative action seats for racial minorities on the Canadian Labour Congress and Ontario Federation of Labour Boards. At the 1987 Ontario Federation of Labour Convention, Herman Stewart of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was elected as the first person of colour. The Coalition redoubled its efforts to force national change, and at the 1990 CLC Convention in Montreal, Dory Smith ran against the slate from the floor and garnered over a thousand votes, almost winning a seat. Due to continued pressure, spots for two visible minorities were made on the CLC Board at the next convention.


Black History Month

Black History Month is a time to recognize the experiences of Black Canadians everywhere. At the Workers’ History Museum, we want to commemorate those working class people whose lives and Poster for libraryactions resulted in positive, progressive change. The “Cal Best Project” celebrates the life and legacy of one of these men.

The son of activist Dr. Carrie Best and train porter Albert Best, James Calbert Best had an astounding 49-year career as a union activist, senior public servant, and Canada’s first Black High Commissioner (to Trinidad and Tobago). He served as the president of the Civil Service Association of Canada (eventually becoming the Public Service Alliance of Canada, or PSAC) from 1957 to 1966. He also worked as director and assistant deputy to various departments in the federal government. Best made vital contributions to collective bargaining, immigration, and even to Canadian sport.

Canada owes a debt of gratitude to Cal Best, and to all the men and women committed to the struggle for equality.


Join us to celebrate Black History Month with “The Cal Best Project” and the Ottawa premiere of our latest documentary, Simply the Best. Our event includes a panel discussion with Stephen Best, Cal’s son, and the filmmakers; it will be MC’d by CBC’s Adrian Harewood. Tuesday, February 25th at 7pm, at the Ottawa Public Library (Main), 120 Metcalfe Street, Ottawa. Admission is free.

Mathieu, Sarah-Jane. “North of the colour line: sleeping car porters and the battle against Jim Crow on Canadian rails, 1880-1920” Labour 47 (Spring 2011): 9-41.
Black History Month: Key Historic Events
Black History Canada (Historica Canada)
Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia
Veteran Affairs Canada
A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
Ontario Black History Society
The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario 1834-1914: Flight, Foundation, Freedom (Archives of Ontario)
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (African Canadian Community)
The Road Taken (National Film Board)

A Winning Bid: Cal Best and the Black History Month Series 2014

12 09 28 Then and Now ConceptSeveral people have asked us about winning the grant to be a part of BAND/TD Then & Now’s Black History Month Series 2014. WHM Treasurer Barb Stewart explains how it came to pass:

“Last July, I noticed an item in the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa (CHOO | COPO) newsletter about the TD Then and Now Black History Month series. They mentioned they were taking applications for projects. At that time, we had been working for six months on a project about Cal Best, a cofounder of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) who went on to become Canada’s first black High Commissioner. We decided to apply and were juried in to the final selection.

We were successful and received funding to help us take this project beyond Ottawa. Events will be held during Black History Month in Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver during February with one in March in Montreal.

Without the announcement in the newsletter we would not have known about this funding source or been able to bring Cal Best’s story to a wider audience.”

Our event in Ottawa starts at 7 p.m. on February 25th at the Ottawa Public Library, featuring a screening of the documentary and a panel discussion with Stephen Best (Cal Best’s son), the filmmakers, and representatives of Ottawa’s Black community. The evening will be hosted by CBC Anchorman Adrian Harewood. This event is jointly hosted by the Ottawa Public Library, BAND, TD Then & Now, the Douglas Coldwell Foundation, and the Workers’ History Museum.

Cal Best Project on Cross-Canada Tour

February is Black History Month, and we’re taking “The Cal Best Project” on the road. See our latest exhibit and documentary Simply the Best at a location near you! All events are free and include panel discussions with Mr. Best’s contemporaries and those he affected.

Thursday, February 6 at 7 pm
Halifax North Memorial Library
2285 Gottingen Street, Halifax

Tuesday, February 11 at 12 noon
Auditorium, Vancouver Community College
Broadway Campus, 1155 East Broadway, Vancouver

Wednesday, February 12 at 7 pm
Vancouver Public Library, Alice MacKay Room
300 West Georgia Street, Vancouver

Tuesday, February 18 at 6 pm
The Central Library
616 Macleod Trail SE, Calgary

Tuesday, February 25 at 7 pm
Auditorium, Ottawa Public Library, Main Branch
120 Metcalfe Street, Ottawa

Tuesday, March 11
Details TBD

Thanks to the generous support of our sponsors for making this tour possible.

12 09 28 Then and Now Concept band-logo

Celebrating Black History Month 2014

The Workers’ History Museum is proud to announce that we’ve been chosen as part of the Black History Month Series 2014, sponsored by TD Then and Now and Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue (BAND). We will be showcasing the “Cal Best Project” as part of a full schedule of activities celebrating Black history and culture.

Thanks to the generous support of TD Then and Now and BAND, we can share our exhibit on Cal Best’s life and legacy, including the documentary Simply the Best, in venues across Canada. Events in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver will bring the life and legacy of this remarkable public figure to life.

Here in Ottawa, you can see Simply the Best on Tuesday, February 25th at 7:00 PM at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. It will be accompanied by an interpretive display and panel discussion; Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa is the MC for the evening. Admission is free.

Arthur Carkner, producer of the Cal Best Project, says, “Black History Month is about the history we share in this country, and I am proud to help bring attention to this great man who lived and raised his family right in our neighbourhood. I hope you come out and see this documentary in Best’s longtime home town.”

12 09 28 Then and Now Concept

Announcing the J. Calbert Best Boardroom

The Workers’ History Museum is thrilled to hear that the Public Service Alliance of Canada is naming their Halifax Regional Office Boardroom after Cal Best! The organizers credit our work for sparking renewed interest in this co-founder of their union, and ultimately leading to this decision. Our video Simply the Best and its accompanying travelling display will be shown at the official opening. We are a virtual museum with real world outcomes!


Adrian Harewood to host Cal Best launch

Adrian Harewood, News Anchor at CBC News Ottawa, will join the Workers’ History Museum for a celebration of the life and legacy of Cal Best. Mr. Harewood will be our Master of Ceremonies at the Ottawa launch of the WHM’s exciting new project – including the premiere of our film Simply the Best – during Black History Month next year.

“The Cal Best Project” – created with the generous support of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists – highlights an important but too often overlooked part of Black history: the activism required to change society for the better. From his early days as a reporter covering the controversial Viola Desmond case to his tenure as Canada’s first Black High Commissioner, Best’s efforts are brought to life through interviews, archival footage, and contemporary news accounts. A special focus on Best’s commitment to a more inclusive public service examines his efforts as co-founder and president of the Civil Service Association of Canada (the precursor to today’s Public Service Alliance of Canada) and highlights the debt that thousands of Canadian public servants owe him even today.

Stay tuned for more details about this exciting event, coming in February 2014!

Simply the Best: A Talk With the Filmmakers

The Workers’ History Museum is proud to announce the Cal Best Project, exploring the life and legacy of this Black activist, union leader, and senior government official. The project includes a travelling exhibit, educational materials and a documentary, Simply the Best. I talked with Arthur Carkner, project coordinator, and Wasim Baobaid, filmmaker, to see how a project like this gets started from the ground up.

Cydney: First of all, I have to say that I’m very excited about this project. It seems like one of the most ambitious endeavours that the WHM has taken part in. Could you tell us how it began? Who came up with the initial idea?

Art: The Cal Best Project began with a DVD of a panel discussion with Founders of PSAC initiated by Craig Spencer. I suggested using parts of this to create a contemporary DVD looking at the life and career of the subject. One of the missions of the WHM is to bring archival or neglected material to a wider audience, to preserve the voices and artifacts of an earlier time.

Cydney: I understand that this project has grown way past the initial estimates. What have you discovered that warrants this larger scope?

Wasim: When we started the research we could not get any info in the web. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry on him. When we got his correct name (“J. Calbert Best”) we found more information, but not as much as we hoped. After that Arthur did very good job in tracking his family member and we got to know more about Cal.

Art: The scope of the project grew considerably as Wasim and I did further research. We learned about his early struggles with racism, his Nova Scotia achievements, about his mother, Carrie Best. Best’s role in immigration, amateur sport, senior positions in various government departments ending in being Canada’s first Black High Commissioner (ambassador) gradually came to light, and we continue to learn more.

Cydney: Could you share one of your favourite “gems” that the research has uncovered?

Art: Cal Best chaired a commission on amateur sport funding, a very hot topic to this day. He recommended that more money be targeted on fewer sports, rather than a scattergun approach. One of the sports subsequently suggested for defunding was biathlo. Myriam Bedard had won a gold medal in this sport, and publicly confronted the Minister, saying, “You’re not going to defund my sport, are you?”.Best’s family teased him about not standing on his apartment balcony, lest Bedard pick him off with her rifle.

Wasim: I would like also to mention that Cal was one of the few people in the world who had a chance to shake hands with the Queen. That itself will give you a good idea of how the man held a senior position at that time. (Unfortunately we could not get a photo of him with the Queen!)

Cydney: You’ve interviewed a lot of Cal Best’s friends and family. If you could talk to the man himself, what would you want to ask him?

Art: I would ask Cal Best what changes he saw in Canadian society in 49 years of public service, and how he thinks the public service of today will be challenged in the future.

Wasim: I would like to know more about his early age especially in New Glasgow and Halifax. I want to know his feelings during his school in terms of racism during that time, and how he got over it. From the interviews we did we know that he was the first black family to arrive to Ottawa, and his daughter Christene said that she and her brother were the only two in the school who were “coloured” at that time. So how much more did he feel that in his school days?

Cydney: The sad death of Burnley Allan Jones was a blow to this project. I believe he was scheduled to be interviewed during the week that he died. What are the plans now?

Art: There is no replacing Rocky Jones in our documentary, he is irreplaceable. We are pursuing other notable Nova Scotians and Ottawans who knew and worked with Best for archival purposes, and to post on our website.

Cydney: Cal Best seems to be one of the unsung heroes of Canada. What do you hope this project will accomplish in terms of making his name known?

Art: We hope the Cal Best Project will get its subject better known in the public, in schools, in the Black community and that he will serve as an inspiration to all those who struggle to improve Canada and the world.

Wasim: This film has a strong message, as do my latest films (Yes, I Can and Sax Appeal). I totally believe, if there is a strong need, desire, and believe of yourself; absolutely, you will achieve your goals no matter who you are, what color and what condition you are in. “Believe in yourself and move forward,” this is the simple message of this film.

By Cydney Foote

Catch a sneak preview of “Simply the Best” at the Canadian Labour International Film Festival on November 29th at the PSAC Building, 233 Gilmour Street, Ottawa.

The Canadian Labour International Film Festival 2013

When: 7pm, November 29th
Where: 233 Gilmour Street (PSAC Headquarters)
Cost: Free!

The Workers’ History Museum is proud to host Ottawa’s Canadian Labour International Film Festival. This successful festival, now in its fifth year, has brought independent films about working people to cities throughout Canada. This year, we’re bringing these stories home to Ottawa!

Please join us on November 29th for the Ottawa CLiFF, featuring the following films:

Ann Kore Moun – Solidarite se chimen devlopman
2012 • 35 Minutes • Haitian Créole (English subtitles)
Directed by André Vanasse
What are unions for? Haitian union leaders explain the role of unions and why civil society is necessary for a country to develop itself. The documentary shows unions in action, in different sectors of society like the peasantry, schools, hospitals, transportation, municipal services, garment factories In Haiti’s free zones. Social protection, public services and the necessity of the rule of law are also discussed.

Union Style
2013 • 3 Minutes • English
Directed by Corinne Baumgarten
This is a light educational video about the importance of unions in general, their history and the current state of unions in Canada. It is a parody of Gangnam Style.

Tough to Swallow: Meals that Sparked a Seniors Revolt
2012 • 14 Minutes • English
Directed by Carla Bridgewater
In 2010, Alberta Health Services began shutting down full-service kitchens in all facilities with fewer than 125 beds and replacing them with so-called “heat and serve” equipment, where pre-cooked food was trucked in, reheated and served to patients and residents. The new food was described as ‘terrible,’ ‘inedible,’ and memorably, ‘dog food,’ but AHS just wasn’t listening to residents or their families. This film takes you under cover with John Gilchrist, noted food expert, author and critic, to expose the truth about the 21-day menu. Following production of this film and the subsequent coverage in conventional media, the Alberta Legislature ordered Alberta Health Services to reverse this policy.

A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for our Families
2012 • 20 Minutes • English (English and French subtitles)
Directed by Aaron Floresco
This film explores how Canadian feminists, unionists and political activists built a potent coalition, mobilized public opinion and achieved vast improvements in maternity leave and other family leave benefits.

We’ll also treat you to a sneak preview of the WHM’s latest documentary, Simply the Best.

The festival takes place at 233 Gilmour Street. Doors open at 7pm; the films begin at 7:30pm. It is a free event. Please contact to reserve tickets.

Thanks to our generous sponsors for their support of this event.

RCBY_logo promo
PSAC logo NCR english-full


Sad News: Burnley Allan Jones Dies in Halifax

Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones, labour/human rights lawyer and internationally acclaimed human and civil rights activist, suffered a heart attack and passed away in Halifax on Monday, July 29th.

Project Coordinator and Workers’ History Museum Board member Arthur Carkner said, “We have seen the passing of a great man, one who stood up and made a difference. On behalf of the WHM, we extend condolences to family and friends of Rocky Jones.”

Jones, 71, was admitted to hospital with heart trouble just days before he was scheduled to be interviewed by Juanita Peters for the WHM’s video on Black union founder and leader Cal Best. (The Cal Best video and supporting exhibit are being prepared for release during Black History Month in February 2014.) His passing is not only a huge setback for our project, but a great loss for the people of Canada.

WHM Celebrates Black History Month

In honour of Black History Month, the Workers” History Museum would like to announce that work has begun on a documentary about Calbert Best, a prominent Black union pioneer, public servant, activist and diplomat.

Interviews and research are currently underway for the video and a travelling display. Arthur Carkner and Wasim Baobaid are working on the project, which will be available for Black History Month in 2014. The WHM is providing the research, production and documentary making work while two regions of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (Ontario and National Capital) are providing funding. The project was initially endorsed by the Racially Visible Action Committee (NCR) of the same union.

Calbert Best was the multi-term president of the Civil Service Association of Canada, one of two employee associations which merged to form PSAC. Born in Nova Scotia, he was active in the first newspaper for Black Nova Scotians, which was founded by his mother, Dr. Carrie Best. She is the subject of many archival and historical articles, and was honoured with a postage stamp in the 1970s.

Calbert Best was fined for refusing to sit in the Black-only section of a movie theatre in his youth. His strong sense of social activism led him to the CSAC, which he was elected president of while working at the Department of Labour. He was central in the merger talks, which led to formation of a union and collective bargaining, with all of the benefits that has provided since.

He subsequently held a number of senior posts in government, ending as Canada’s high commissioner (equivalent to an ambassador but within the Commonwealth nations) to Trinidad and Tobago. After retirement from his regular work, he headed up a federal study commission on amateur sport, and was a member of the 1999 Treasury Board committee studying visible minority participation in the Public Service of Canada. He has since passed away, but his many great contributions to create a better Canada will have a lasting effect on present and future generations of Canadians.