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A major casting call is going out to Winnipeg’s Black community as production is about to start on the largest Black-led TV series ever produced in Canada.

CBC and the online streaming service BET+ are co-creating the new drama series The Porter, about the world’s first Black union created by railway workers from Canada and the United States.

Inspired by real events and set in the roar of the 1920s, the eight-episode series will follow the journeys of an ensemble cast of characters “who hustle, dream, cross borders and pursue their ambitions in the fight for liberation — on and off the railways that crossed North America,” states a release about The Porter.

Earlier this month, the series unveiled its leading cast. It includes Aml Ameen (I May Destroy You), Mouna Traoré (The Umbrella Academy) and Ronnie Rowe Jr. (Pretty Hard Cases).

The show is set primarily in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit, but is being filmed in Winnipeg. It begins shooting next month.

On Friday, the call for the first round of general casting went out to the public.

“It’s been such a long road — this has been, like, 11 years of my life getting to where we are now,” said Arnold Pinnock, one of the series’ co-creators.

“So it’s exciting. I mean, we have a long road ahead of us, but a long road that I’m looking forward to every single day.”

The producers are looking to cast background actors and hope members of Winnipeg’s Black community apply. Pinnock said they are looking for a broad range of people.

Application forms and more information can be found on the casting company’s website.

“From top to bottom, from your toddler that you can’t get away from the video games to your grandfather who can’t get off of his La-Z-Boy, we want them all. We want everyone,” Pinnock said.

“This is a celebration for Winnipeg. Come out and celebrate yourselves.”

Porters fought for equality, dignity

The story the series tells is about the fight for equality and dignity, particularly by the American and Canadian men who worked as railway porters. For the women in their lives, who face sexism and colourism, it’s a movement to claim their independence and identity, says a news release. 

“What they did in Canada or in North America, I mean, they literally changed policy. They banded together north and south of the border to create the biggest and the first Black union of its kind in the world,” Pinnock said over the phone from Toronto.

A CN porter checks on a child in a sleeping car in 1947. (Canadian Science and Technology Museum/CN005491)

When he first learned the story of the porters, “that just stopped me in my tracks,” Pinnock said. “And I was like, OK, this is where I want to put my energy towards.

“Black people walking the streets every day should know that they have a stake in this land — the very streets that they walk — especially Winnipeg. They are weaved into the fabric of this flag.”

A porters’ union, the Order of the Sleeping Car Porters, was formed by four men in Winnipeg in 1917. 

The OSCP later voted to support white workers in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Ninety-nine porters joined the 30,000 workers who walked off the job on May 12. The majority of those men weren’t hired back after the dust settled.

“The birth of the union is Winnipeg. That’s where these meetings started off,” said Pinnock.

“That’s why, when we were fortunate to know we were shooting in Winnipeg, I was like, are you kidding me? Because it’s got such a heritage of movement and of bonding together to form this union that I just thought, of course we should be filming in Winnipeg.

“It was definitely meant to be.”

  • WATCH | Sleeping car porters and Black immigration to Manitoba: 

In this piece from 2000, CBC reporter Sandra Batson covers immigration of black communities to the Prairies and the struggles they encountered in Canada. 9:29

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.