East Van's Militant Mothers celebrate 50th anniversary of victory to keep kids safe
By Carolyn Jerome
It seems like a very long time ago now (50 years this month) that a group of us living in Vancouver’s Raymur Housing Project took on the Canadian National (CNR) and Burlington Northern (BNR) railways.
Our children had to cross the busy rail tracks to get to and from Admiral Seymour Elementary School and it just wasn’t safe. So a group of determined mothers took it upon ourselves to change things, and eventually we did.
This is our story, told from the perspective of one of the Militant Mothers of Raymur:
We were two single moms in 1970-'71 living in the project's high-rise at 400 Campbell Avenue and we would see each other in the elevator. We would talk about the control the B.C. Housing Commission exerted on its tenants—especially its policy of no guests allowed after certain hours, complete with eyes peering from the Housing Commission office located by the elevator. That got us laughing.
Those elevator conversations inevitably turned to challenging the audacity of the nearby railway tracks. They were running their trains to and from the docks at the same time that our kids had to cross their tracks to get to school.
We started phoning the railways and phoning Vancouver City Hall, but our calls went unanswered. When we complained to the housing authority at Raymur, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, "Not our jurisdiction, blah, blah, blah.' "
Our casual neighbourly chats evolved into a group of us meeting over tea in one another’s apartments—most featuring a clear view of the train tracks in question and the path our kids had to take. After several “tea sessions”, we emerged as mothers determined to have this dangerous situation addressed. Normal “train traffic operations” were going to have to be “unnormalized”.
The Raymur housing project was made up of 350 rental units with two towers (one for seniors and the other for families) and multiple row-housing units. Under the guidance of B.C. Housing, a tenant’s council met once a month. As fairly new tenants, a group of us decided to get ourselves onto the agenda of the next meeting to discuss the rail-tracks problem.
By attending that meeting, we learned that the issue had come up before. The tenants association had sent petitions to city hall and B.C. Housing and they were well aware of the problem. But the matter had been shelved by those who could have enacted change.
Armed with this new information, we shored up the tenants council’s support for our call to action and we got busy. One of the mothers had a typewriter and another was a writer. We sent countless petitions to Vancouver City Hall, made more phone calls, and sent letters to the CNR. Once again, our voices were ignored and the trains kept rolling by.
After so many meetings about the safety of our children, some of us decided we needed to take serious action to get CNR's attention and bring it into line and to fulfill their responsibilities as a Crown corporation.
Our small group created a communiqué addressed to all Raymur residents and hand-delivered to every household asking that they attend a special meeting. Not many of our neighbours attended that first meeting, but we did get enough support to commit to keep on organizing and take more action. We presented our plan: stop the trains.
Well, all hell broke loose! We were opposed by more than half the residents at Raymur. But our group, made up of about two dozen recent immigrants, single moms, antiwar activists, and feminists (although we didn’t call ourselves that back in those days) agreed to stand on the tracks and block the trains to press our demand, regardless of opposition. It was necessary.
Many of our more conservative neighbours refused to support the blockade plan. They were content to continue writing to city hall and circulating petitions. But we were adamant. And we kept talking to those neighbours, trying to convince them that this was the only way to get the rail corporations’ attention. Our circle of support grew. We were committed. A date was picked and we issued a news release.
It was a cold morning on January 8, 1971, when we first stood on the Burrard Inlet railway tracks in front of an oncoming train. Feeling the thunder of that train’s reverberations beneath our feet was terrifying. Would it stop in time or drive right into us? Was this the right move, to stand in front of a moving train?
We hung onto each other, quivering not so much from the cold but from the uncertainty. We all breathed a sigh of relief as it finally braked to a halt in front of us. The train operators lost little time in calling us names and putting us down. We just ignored them. They couldn’t see the bigger picture: that a child could get hurt, or worse.
Over the next few hours, the trains backed up to and from the Port of Vancouver. Train personnel were sent to talk to us, which we expected. Vancouver city council sent a representative who advised us to attend a council meeting that day. Vancouver was in the midst of a bus strike and not many of us had cars, so we piled into a Volkswagen Beetle and one other car and headed to city hall.
We made it, only to be told by council that we hadn’t followed “proper procedure” getting permission to speak. We read them our demand anyway: safe passage for our kids crossing the railway tracks. It didn’t seem complicated; all we needed was for the trains not to run when the kids were coming and going to school until a pedestrian overpass could be built. We left city hall not knowing what their stand would be.
By the end of that first day, we had an agreement from the CNR that trains would not run during the times our kids were coming to and from school: early morning, lunchtime, and after school. We felt victorious and we celebrated. For the next two weeks, CNR kept its word and it looked like city hall was in agreement about getting the land and building the overpass. Their plan called for the city to pay 15 perent, Burlington Northern to chip in five percent, and the federal government and CNR to pay the rest.
Then the railway forgot its promise and the trains resumed “normal operations”, unchecked. On January 28, the mothers took to the tracks again to pressure CNR to comply with the agreed-upon crossing times. More discussions followed, money was offered, and after four hours of standing on the tracks, we went home. We had turned down $1,000 from General Laboratories, which relied on rail service and was trying to broker an agreement between us and the railway. The CNR workers bought us some beer at the end of the day and promised they would keep to the schedule. We believed them and again we went home.
Two months into our agreement with CNR, the trains were back to their old schedules. We were tired of the broken promises and tired of the time it took to contact city officials and the railway. We were tired of the blockades and the endless deliberations. We figured they thought we would eventually just go home and forget about it all.
It was certainly true that they were wearing us down. We didn’t know if our agreement was being ignored because of incompetence or because the railways were trying to “show us who’s boss”. We never found out for sure. But the trains were back, rolling down the tracks when the kids were crossing in the morning and again at lunchtime and after school—the ball was being dropped once again.
So it was back to the drawing board for the mothers. We knew further action was needed, and in a highly charged residents’ meeting, it was proposed that we pitch a tent across the tracks. While there were still lots of residents opposed to the plan, the majority supported the blockade. It was “agreed that the aggressive actions of CNR and the lack of action by Vancouver City Hall needed to be addressed”. We were focused. What followed next was a search to find a big enough tent—and one of the mothers had one we could use.
Early on March 24, we began our final bid to pressure the railways to keep their word. We set up our canvas tent on the tracks, with a group of us standing together beside it awaiting the first train. When that train rolled up, it faced a tent and a group of resolute mothers. The railway authorities were furious, accusing us of “prohibiting train operations” and trespassing. One train came extremely close to us with its whistle blowing, but we stood firm. That train finally stopped, followed by more cussing from the train operators.
Support for our actions came from all over Vancouver and people joined us on the tracks. They brought drinks, cookies, sandwiches, and their welcome solidarity. We were well-respected women and we got the best from our larger community. Local media was covering the story. One community group brought its "NOW" bus down and parked it as close to the tracks as possible for us to use as a place to get out of the cold. Because railway security guarded the tracks around the clock, some of us slept in the bus and got relieved by others in the morning. The NOW Bus was a welcome shelter that provided space for us to meet, have coffee, and get some sleep.
As a group, the mothers went through a lot of growing pains. Some mothers thought we had made our point and should take the tent down. More of us thought we should stay until we had an ironclad agreement on the building of an overpass—nothing less. Throughout it all, our excellent communications mother kept the media up to date and naysayers quickly became "yaysayers".
Two of us received a telegram from the CNR. In part, it said: "take notice application will be made on behalf of Burlington Northern Inc. and Canadian National Railway…for an order restraining you and others from trespassing or besetting or otherwise interfering with the operation of the Burrard Inlet Railway Line…” We were ordered to attend court the next day.
So the next morning a group of us went to the Vancouver courthouse to state our case against the restraining order. The railways were represented by seven lawyers (mostly Americans for BNR), all lined up in their suits and ties before the judge. We stated our case to Judge A. Mackoff, who admonished the railway lawyers for not serving us proper legal papers to obtain a restraining order. (Perhaps the U.S. lawyers were not aware of Canadian law).
When the court took a 10-minute break, we huddled in the foyer to discuss our situation. A young lawyer named Bruce McColl offered to help and told us the judge had no alternative but to dismiss the no-trespassing order because we had not been served proper notice. We happily agreed to let him speak for us in court. Who would have thought that seven lawyers could get it so wrong? The judge rejected the initial injunction and back to our tent we went.
Night number two on the tracks: the NOW bus was in place and we used it for further discussions about what to do next. We expected there would be more “legal action”. We knew the bailiffs would be looking to properly serve the two named "militant mothers" in the new injunction. Our plan was that we would hide, but they found us and served us new papers to appear in court. We figured that the seven lawyers were probably going to get the application right this time and we would be ordered off the tracks.
Meanwhile, city council passed a motion that since it had been unable to come to an agreement with the owners of the land it needed for the pedestrian overpass, it would expropriate that land.
And there was more good news. In a letter from the CNR to the mothers dated March 24, the railway stated: “There is no question about the need for an overpass and the Canadian Transport Commission issued its approval for this structure on March 15.” The letter also outlined that the trains would run as agreed upon, promising that “any deviance from our agreement would see flagmen guiding the kids across the tracks”.
On March 29, the courts finally granted BNR/CNR their injunction “enjoining and restraining the Defendants and each and every one of them, their perspective agents or any other person or persons acting on their behalf, from trespassing, watching, besetting, attending upon, entering upon, or remaining upon” the tracks by Raymur. The companies also wanted “damages for loss suffered by the unlawful action or actions of the Defendants or any of them sought to be enjoined” and court costs. But by that time we had gotten what we came for: a solid commitment to build the overpass and keep our kids safe until then.
We celebrated, laughing while we took down the tent with family, friends, and neighbours and we congratulated ourselves—an overpass in our time!
It took months before the overpass was actually built, but it is still used to safely cross those tracks to this day.