How I was able to break new ground in Canada

How I was able to break new ground in Canada

Posted on February 9 by Gerald A. Archambeau
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At thirteen, I was sent by my aunts from Jamaica to join my mother in Montreal in 1947. She had emigrated the year before to marry my new step-father in Canada. My life appeared to take a turn for the worse as I was sent out to work on a very cold January day the following morning.

I never stopped working until my retirement from Air Canada in 1993. After two bad marriages I was able to find true happiness with my present wife Marion. She encouraged me to write an autobiography, so I took up the challenge and was able to finish it over a ten year period. Writing was an established fact in my family; my grandfather, Herbert T. Thomas, was a wordsmith who authored two books on Jamaica during his lifetime. I first self-published my work in 2004, and pressed onward publicizing my immigrant life in Canada until I was published by Blue Butterfly Books.

Through my research into the facts about my life in Canada, I realized that I had broken some new ground as a black Jamaican immigrant boy. I became the first black boy to be accepted, in 1948, into the Canadian Naval Cadets in Rosemont, Montreal. I went on to serve aboard the land base ship H.M.C.S Donnacona while living in Rosemont. I did not realize at that time that I was the first black naval Cadet in Quebec. Now I had to deal with racism head-on for the first time. This was the start of my struggle to maintain my dignity in Canada.

My second ground-breaking experience was being hired as the first black Bonded Telegraph Messenger to work for the Anglo American Telegraph Co. They were the Canadian branch of the Western Union Telegraph in America. I went on to work for both the Canadian Railways C.P.R & C.N.R. for 15 years. I ​am thankful to the railways for opening one of the only doors for black male employment in the 1940s, in a clean surroundings to serve well-off Canadians who could afford to ride first class. It was a good job for me as I met people, and saw the country from coast to coast.

The final ground-breaker for me was in Ontario, after I moved from Quebec in 1959. I was able to see the changes coming in passenger travel from trains to aeroplanes. So I applied to Air Canada and was hired in Toronto in 1967. I became a Station Attendant to work on the Airport Ramp at Malton, Ontario. I took a year of very hard work to prove I could handle the work while having to deal with some bad racist attitudes. Eventfully an opening became available for a Lead Ramp Foreman, and I decided to take the challenge, by passing the required test successfully. This job paid well because of the responsibilities to do with the safety of aircraft, men, and ground equipment.

Throughout my career with Air Canada I fought the good fight for many years, against rotten racist attitudes that were quite prevalent at that time. As time went on the airport name was changed to Pearson International Airport, along with many other changes such as the hiring of many more visible minorities and women into the white male dominated areas. I belonged to the I.A.M.&A.W. Union, and eventually the progressive members voted for a new president Paul Lefebver. This gentleman could see clearly that some members had poor racist and gender attitudes that had to change. So with his help and the help of some progressive managers I was able by contribution to end the poor behaviour in the workplace. I went on to form the Employee Relations Rights & Equity Committee in the Union, which still operates today. I was awarded a plaque in recognition of my efforts.

Today I am a proud Canadian and happily retired.       

Gerald A. Archambeau

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 6, 2014

Gerald A. Archambeau

Gerald Augustus Archambeau was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and was sent to Montreal in 1947. He worked for Canadian Pacific and Canadian National until the 1960s, when declining passenger rail traffic and the ascendence of air travel caused him to switch to a career with a major Canadian airline in Toronto. After his retirement from the airline, Gerald settled in St. Catharines, Ontario.