When asked about his overarching goal for writing his autobiography, A Struggle to Walk with Dignity – The True Story of a Jamaican-born Canadian, Gerald Archambeau responds, “To inspire youth to never give up on the goodness of human beings regardless of race.” With this aspiration in mind, Archambeau has donated a collection of his works – a memoir and three scrapbooks – to Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections.
The scrapbooks narrate Archambeau’s life through a series of photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings pertaining to race relations and his employers the Canadian National Railway (CN), Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Air Canada. The scrapbooks refer to the collective fight for human rights equality and Archambeau’s quotes written throughout added personal reflections of his own struggle. These scrapbooks, chronicling his life, served as the catalyst for writing A Struggle to Walk with Dignity – The True Story of a Jamaican-born Canadian.
Catherine Davidson, York University’s associate university librarian of collections, believes that Archambeau’s donation will be a valuable instructional resource for undergraduate humanities programs, specifically courses in Canadian history and race relations. “Archambeau’s memoir and scrapbooks shine a light on the racial segregation and inequality that were prevalent in Canada at the time,” said Davidson. “Archambeau’s scrapbooks in particular are a fascinating read; they bring the issues to life for the reader.”
Archambeau was born in Jamaica to a Panamanian father of African, French, and Aboriginal ancestry and mother of Caucasian and African ancestry – although he was raised by his grandmother and three aunts.
As a teenager he was forced to immigrate to Canada by his mother and stepfather, a Barbadian who fought for the Canadian army in the Second World War and for that reason was granted Canadian citizenship. Archambeau moved to Canada so the three could qualify for veteran housing in Montreal.
Because of his love for trains, Archambeau was employed as a porter for CN and CPR for over 15 years. He writes next to a newspaper clipping about the porters in one of his scrapbooks, “The true gentlemen of the rails – service with a smile even though we were insulted at times.” Despite racial clauses in some union contracts, Archambeau’s time on the rails was quite happy. “We served Canada’s wealthy who could afford to ride in sleeping cars, club cars, parlour cars, and eat in the dining cars. Porters who provided good service were tipped and always had money in their pockets. Very few incidences of open racism occurred on the railways and if there were any problems (the porters) could report it to the train conductor who would handle it according to railway rules.”
In the 1960s the railway business started to decline in popularity and in 1967 Archambeau began working for Air Canada as a station attendant, later being promoted to lead ramp foreman. It was at this point that he said that he had to fight for equality because of improper workplace practices and behaviours.
When Archambeau retired in 1993, his wife Marion encouraged him to write his autobiography, the book was published in 2008 by Blue Butterfly Publishing. “The most important thing to me in life is my integrity as a human being – not as a race or a colour, but as a person,” said Archambeau. ”My book is a very humanistic story about interactions between people of the human race.”
For more information about the donation or how to integrate it into coursework and research, contact Anna St.Onge, archivist of digital projects & outreach, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, by e-mail to email@example.com. To order a copy of Archambeau’s book, click here.