Candace Knoll gets animated as she talks about her family history.
The third youngest of nine kids, Knoll speaks engagingly about her many moves and Winnipeg upbringing from her first job at Haynes Chicken Shack to winning the Miss Ebony title before her single mother moved to Coquitlam with Knoll and two of her siblings.
“We didn’t have much of anything,” she says. “But we had each other.”
Today, Knoll is a valued member of the Coquitlam community. She has worked for Telus for more than 25 years, is a union steward for United Steelworkers local 1944 and is a member of the anti-racism coalition of Vancouver.
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Hers is just one of the stories of Black community members featured in Coquitlam Heritage’s new online exhibit: We’ve Been Here a Long Time.
A work in progress for a couple of years, the exhibit was released earlier this month at gocoquitlamheritage.ca.
The exhibit is primarily about meeting neighbours, says Tannis Koskela, heritage manager of exhibits at the Coquitlam Heritage Society.
She had initially planned to release an exhibit about B.C.’s Black community (We’ve Been Here All Along) but found there was a wealth of history and experience in Coquitlam, enough that a standalone exhibit was merited. We’ve Been Here a Long Time examines the Black community through several lenses including “political, family ties” and community contributions.
Koskela said the exhibit wouldn’t exist without the community’s input. She began by speaking with city councillor Trish Mandewo, the first Black person to be elected to Coquitlam council, who then directed her to a few other families. The project spread by word of mouth.
Also featured are Mel Warner, Florence and Ernest Daddey, Tara Self (nee Perry), Percy Perry, William Theophlus Brown, the Ryan family, the Clarke family and the Trotman family. There’s also information about the Windies Cricket Club and All Nations Church of God in Christ.
The cricket club and the church were new finds for Koskela. She was also interested to learn about how many professional athletes found their start in Coquitlam, mostly at the Coquitlam Cheetahs Track and Field Club, which was coached by Percy Perry for 15 years. The club produced five Olympians under his tutelage—including his daughter, Tara—and several pro football players.
The online exhibit was a little different to set up than one that has a permanent physical location.
“If you’re at an in-person exhibit, you can walk around and you can see articles on display and read the text versus an online exhibit which still kind of relies on visuals, but in order to get the visuals on, you have to then borrow things from people and photograph them and transfer them to the webpage,” says Koskela. “So it’s a little extra step there and then get the captions right and cropping and highlighting and adjusting.”
She was aided in the process by heritage assistants Emily Zhang and Ben Geisberg.
The exhibit was meant to be up for Black History Month in February, but faced a few delays before going live on March 10.
Coquitlam connection to sleeping car porters
The exhibit also dives into railway history offering a glimpse into the lives of the Black men who worked as sleeping car porters.
During the golden age of rail travel in the first half of the 20th century, porters made the lives of travellers easier. They carried luggage, prepared beds, shined shoes, offered food and drink service and were available “round the clock” to White passengers in the sleeping cars, the exhibit says.
Knoll recalls two uncles, Lee and Roy Williams, worked as porters. Porters were well-respected among their community, and they were proud. But on the job, they weren’t given the same respect. They had no job security—passenger complaints, whether they were fact of fiction, were grounds for firing—and paid for their own uniforms and meals. They worked long shifts and experienced poor sleeping conditions.
“It wasn’t right,” says Knoll.
Early in his career Lee Williams became familiar with John. F. Diefenbaker, who at the time was an MP in Saskatchewan and would ride the train he worked on.
“He was the type of fellow that when he got on the train, he was always taking his time talking to employees, porters, anybody,” says Williams in The Road Taken, a 1996 National Film Board documentary about the experiences of Black sleeping car porters. “And that’s how I got to know him.”
Their paths never crossed for years, but Williams kept tabs on Diefenbaker and his political career. The initial relationship would prove useful years later.
Despite having their own union, Black porters were treated much differently than their white counterparts.
“They [passengers] didn’t talk to you like they talked to the white employees,” says Williams. “You weren’t supposed to have an opinion.”
Williams later wrote to Diefenbaker when he was Prime Minister describing the plight of Black sleeping-car porters. They couldn’t be promoted to better positions on the train.
“He gave him the what’s what,” says Knoll.
As the story goes, Diefenbaker replied with a copy of the Canada Fair Employment Act and told Williams what to do about it.
More time passed without any change and by then Lester B. Pearson was Prime Minister. So Williams wrote to Pearson, informing him that a complaint had been lodged under the Canada Fair Employment Act to eliminate discrimination against Blacks on the railway and that they expected the law to be enforced by Pearson’s cabinet.
The announcement came a few days later. The company and union were told they could either break up the discriminatory conditions of employment, or the government would do it for them.
“That was a big accomplishment,” says Knoll of her uncle. “He took on the government; he took on the union and he won.”
Knoll’s story as well as others in the exhibit can be found at gocoquitlamheritage.ca/weve-been-here-a-long-time/