The Porter celebrates the lives of Black Canadian railway workers

This new historical drama shines light on lesser known Canadian stories

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Image of Black train porters waiting at a station platform.
The series spotlights the fight for working rights of train porters. PHOTO: Courtesy of Winston Ma / CBC

By: Tamanna T., Staff Writer

As of late, historical television shows are being made for a very niche audience, and most shows lack diverse representation. But there’s a new historical drama on the block, and this time it commemorates a part of history that doesn’t get talked about enough — Black Canadian lives in the 1920s, after the abolition of slavery in Canada. 

The Porter, which premiered on February 21, is set in Montreal and follows the lives of Black train porters and their families during the unionization movement. Historically, these porters faced exploitation and discrimination from passengers and employers. So the Black porters formed the Order of Sleeping Car Porters, which successfully lobbied for salary increases, better on-the-job sleeping conditions, and more. Inspired by these real-life events, the show commemorates the love, heartbreak, and struggles of these porters. With vibrant shots, visually appealing scenes, and bone-chilling dialogue, I have no doubt The Porter is on its way to become a revered and critically acclaimed series. 

The show takes its viewers on a ride through the lives of porters Junior Massey and Zeke Garrett, played by Aml Ameen and Ronnie Rowe Jr. respectively, as they battle systemic racism while trying to unionize. This series is meant to reframe history by showcasing the full extent of the Black diaspora’s influence.

In an interview with The Peak, Vancouver-based actor Luc Roderique, who plays Winchester Barnes — a porter with a dark and mysterious past — talked about the celebration of Black lives offered by the show and its importance in history. He also discussed his character’s struggles throughout the show.

He began by noting “there is a wealth of incredible stories” related to Canadian marginalized communities we should be showcasing. Calling The Porter incredibly unique, Roderique shared he has “never seen a story like this told on Canadian television” and that the show was a joy to work on. 

“It was the experience that I’ve been waiting for through my career thus far. It’s going to be hard to top this, to be completely honest. To have the opportunity to play a character like this and also to feel such support, freedom, and safety on set to be able to explore these characters,” Roderique said. “We, for once, were being seen and telling our story.”

Discussing Winchester Barnes, Roderique talked about how the character is running from his dark past and fighting for his present and future as a porter. “He’s also a man dealing with some pretty big trauma,” said Roderique. “Personal traumas that we see in the first episode, and wider societal traumas. This is a man who suffers from anxiety and depression.” Consisting of such characters, The Porter has the potential to become a show that viewers will watch eagerly. They depict not only larger movements for labour rights and Black resurgence, but also daily life we can all relate to.

The show also connects to Vancouver in many ways. “In pretty much every metropolitan area in all of Canada, there was a Black community or a Black neighbourhood,” Roderique said. This includes BC’s Hogan’s Alley, “which was a thriving Black community because of its proximity to the train station,” Roderique continued. There was a sense of connection among Black communities across the nation because of the porters working and traveling via train stations, which generated brotherhood.

The Porter will also invite viewers to ponder what life was like in the 1920s for Black Canadians. An important line in the trailer is, “The force of our oppression is the truest measure of our power,” which stuck with me. Talking about how The Porter achieves this measure of power, Roderique said that “simply in telling this story, it achieves that. 

“It’s really incredible to feel like we are continuing the legacy of visibility and equity that these men started,” he said.

The Porter airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. on CBC TV and will be available to stream on CBC Gem.