Frank Collins: Union Leader and Black Activist in 1940s Vancouver

Published by BC Labour Heritage Centre on

(Photo: Four members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Canadian Pacific Railroad Division, posed standing: Frank Collins, Joe(?) Hudson, L.M. Alexander, and Sam Lewis, ca. 1943. Frank Collins became President of the Vancouver Division of the Union, as well as the BC branch of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Coloured People. Library of Congress photo, 90715591)

In the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona in the 1930s, the community was a vibrant and diverse mix of Black and Chinese families, businesses and entertainment venues. Opportunities were few for black workers looking for employment in the city after high school or university, and well into the 1950s, jobs were limited to underpaid, menial positions such as sleeping car porter or “shoeshine boy”. On the railroad, sleeping car porters were exclusively black “by tradition”, and were denied promotions, raises, access to the union and the like. In the early 1920s, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) dismissed 36 porters because of union activities. This mass firing put a chill on sleeping car porter unionization efforts for over 10 years, until porters began organizing with the support of the US‐based Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1939.

Four Collins brothers – Frank, Fred, Richard (Dick), and Dave – lived in Strathcona and worked as Canadian Pacific Railway car porters. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a union created by African-American employees of the Pullman Company in 1925 in the United States, started to formally establish divisions north of the border – first in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. In 1945, the BSCP signed a collective agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway, effectively unionizing all the sleeping car porters across Canada.

At an “overflowing” mass meeting in Vancouver, A. Phillip Randolph, one of the founders of the Brotherhood, set up the city’s division and established a branch of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Coloured People (CLACP), later named the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAACP).

Frank Collins, the eldest Collins brother, was elected and served as President of both organizations. By 1956, he changed careers and became a bus driver, but continued to serve the labour movement in the role of business agent and representative for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), as well as retaining his role as President of the BCAACP well into the 1970s.

As an interesting aside, his sister-in-law, Eleanor Collins (married to Richard “Dick” Collins) has been called Canada’s “First Lady of Jazz”. Celebrated for her career as a jazz singer with CBC Radio and Television, she was the first Black artist in North America to host a nationally broadcast television series.

  • Prepared by Bailey Garden, Project Manager, BC Labour Heritage Centre