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Train Tracks to Change

PeerNetBC has been in the process of developing an historical diversity tour of East Vancouver. We have been fortunate to be working with a group of youth looking at the area and helping to shape the tour and create an understanding the conditions surrounding events. We are please to be able to have one of the participants share some of their findings, so without further ado, here’s Hanna –

In 1971, a group of 25 women were living in Raymur Social Housing Project, now known as Stamps Place, in the 1000 block of E Pender. Their children attended Seymour Elementary, and had to cross a set of active train tracks on their way to school every morning. Several kids had had close encounters with the trains. The mothers decided to do something about the situation; they wrote letters, spread petitions, and made speeches in city hall. But because these women were just “welfare moms” living in social housing, and many were women of colour and single mothers, they had little power or importance in the eyes of City Council and Burlington Northern Railway, the company that owned the tracks. So the mothers turned to direct action.

On January 6, 1971, the 25 mothers marched onto the tracks in the snow and freezing temperatures, set up tents and chairs, and waited. All day they sat on the tracks, forcing the trains to stop and blocking them from reaching the nearby Port of Vancouver. Carolyn Jerome, one of the mothers on the tracks that day, remembers how terrified she was that day: “When the trains are rumbling on the track, you can really feel them in your body.” Despite being called “lazy welfare moms” by the train drivers, the mothers stood their ground, insisting that they get “honest proof that these time schedules are gonna be kept.” The rail companies had promised a new schedule for train crossings, one that avoided before and after school and lunch, but the mothers were critical about the integrity of the rail company, as they should be as CN continually broke their word. The Militant Mothers of Raymur’s work was far from over.

The mothers protested on the tracks two more times, even rejecting a $1000 (double in today’s dollars) bribe to stop. The mothers were determined to get their initial demand met—for an overpass to be built over the tracks or no trains run at all. In their third and final protest, they were joined by members of the public in round the clock shifts that, at one point, had 70 people in attendance, including 12 Raymur moms. But even after the three days of direct action, the railway companies continued to break their word, and the situation ended up in court. The court ruling banned the mothers from camping out on the tracks, but also held the train companies legally responsible to their promise to post two flagpeople at the crossing during daylight hours, and to uphold generous restricted hours for train crossings that accommodated schoolchildren crossing before and after school and during lunch. The City of Vancouver also built the Keefer Street Overpass so the children, and others, could safely cross the tracks at all times. Victory at last!

After the train tracks issue had passed, the Militant Mothers didn’t stop in their activism. Their success had created a sense of community spirit that spurred the mothers to go on to found a food coop for affordable grocery shopping and advocate for a community centre to be built (the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre). Carolyn Jerome said they “felt very empowered” when they stopped the trains, and this empowerment was particularly important for a group that tends to get ignored and silenced due to their economic class. The railway victory had shown to the community that “lazy welfare moms” could indeed make a difference, even if it came to tough direct action to get there. But not everything had gone as hoped; the overpass that was built was styled like a metal cage, and Carolyn Jerome said she never used it, believing it to represent the public’s “thoughts about [their] community at the time.” If their concerns had been taking seriously from the start, the mothers wouldn’t have had to put themselves in danger in order to stop train traffic to the Port of Vancouver, and impact business—the act that finally forced the companies to listen.

In my research of the Militant Mothers of Raymur and the events that occurred in 1971, I went down to the Raymur Housing Project, or what is now Stamps Place, and walked over the overpass that was built. I understood Carolyn Jerome’s comment about the overpass being like a cage—it indeed felt prison-like and constricting, being built from a chain link fence material that stretched over the walkway into a roof. The overpass was dotted with graffiti, and the train tracks below held litter and weeds. But it was not hard to picture 25 women, standing in solidarity on the tracks over 40 years ago, united in their mission to stop the trains. I could picture them living in the social housing complex, their kids attending Seymour school, and their daily lives in this neighbourhood. My own grandmother worked at the Raymur Co-operative Centre in the mid 70s, and may have had contact with some of the Raymur Mothers. When I found this out, I was reminded of the infinite lines of connection that span communities and time periods and knit the fabric of the history of the city. I was humbled by the deep history of my city, that even within my 16 years of lived experience I have sat at the crossroads of many extraordinary events in this city, and walked the pavement that so many others have walked on, their stories preserved between the lines of archived newspaper articles and buildings and plaques.

My research also reminded me of the countless other protests and incidents of direct action that have occurred in Vancouver and abroad, including those that went unnoticed and unsuccessful. I am reminded about how privilege interacts with us differently in all of our daily lives, and the privilege that I experience when I talk about social justice issues, educate others, sign a petition or attend a protest. I remember that other voices, who say the same things as me, may be silenced because of their identities. While I am grateful for the privileges I experience, I am also angry that the Raymur mothers had to work so hard to achieve safety for their children, and that many people still have to work to achieve basic safety.



The overpass as it currently stands nearby the Raymur (now Stamps Place) housing project).


One of the boards of newspaper clippings at the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre showcasing the mothers’ victory.

One of the boards of newspaper clippings at the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre showcasing the mothers’ victory.


I’m Hanna Jacobsen, a 16 year old girl (she/her/hers pronouns) in grade 11. I’m interested in a wide variety of social justice issues, in both using my privilege to strengthen my allyship to other communities and finding my place within the communities I am a part of. I am also an avid reader, theatre-goer, actress, improviser, photographer, traveller and ultimate player.