Domestic program was precursor to Caribbean immigration

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Tom Godfrey By Tom Godfrey
Wednesday February 03 2016




Many of us may not be here today if it wasn’t for a “West Indian domestic program” that allowed thousands of women from the Caribbean entry into Canada more than 60 years ago.

The West Indian Domestic Scheme in Canada as it was called in 1955 allowed the women, who were our mothers or grandmothers, an opportunity to come here and work as domestics for a year and hopefully gain a foothold in this country.

This Black History Month marks an era when almost 3,000 women were allowed to travel to Canada and Britain to take part in one-year stints as domestics. They were granted permanent residency; could apply for citizenship after five years and an opportunity to sponsor their children and families.

The women had to be in good health, between the ages of 18 and 35, with no family ties and possess a minimum Grade 8 education. Hundreds applied each year for the coveted positions but only 100 women yearly were selected each from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada and other countries.

Many today describe the program as discriminatory since its requirements may break age and gender selection guidelines. But, for most of the women, the program gave them hope and a chance to better their lives.

Frances Henry, in an essay titled The West Indian Domestic Scheme Canada, said many of those who applied for the jobs were from middle-class homes and had good jobs.

She said they were totally unprepared for life in Canada and many faced discrimination from their employers and the Canadian public.

“Stories of discrimination were extremely widespread among the women and even those who had not experienced discrimination knew others that did,” Henry wrote.

She said there was also a “widespread distrust for Canadian people” by the new arrivals.

“Over two thirds of the women said they had experienced discrimination at some time,” she said. “At least half had problems on the job, on the buses, or being waited on in stores or restaurants.”

Many of the women stressed that when they showed up for job interviews or apartments they were told it was gone or taken once the person saw their colour or heard a foreign accent.

The women who were selected, for the most part, according to the essay, wanted to leave the islands due to boredom, for adventure or to study abroad.

I vaguely remember as a child one such female family member leaving Trinidad to work as a domestic in Canada and how the entire family had driven to Piarco International Airport to see her off in a tearful departure.

Those were the days when there was little migration from the Caribbean to Canada. In fact, migration to Canada from the West Indies from the 1920s to the early 1960s was non-existent. Most of the immigration really began in the early 1960s and by 1973 there was a 13 per cent rise in immigration to Canada, statistics show.

By then community members like Donald Moore, Dr. Norman Grizzle, Harry Gairey, Dudley Laws, Bromley Armstrong and others were working hard in Toronto to help the domestics integrate and cope into Canadian society.

Volunteers like Moore, Armstrong and others travelled to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to help change laws to favour domestics and the many immigrants who were arriving in Canada at the time.

Groups such as the Canadian Negro Women’s Association were also providing support to the women, some who were suffering at the hands of their employers, or had immigration or family issues.

The program was among the only way for women to travel to Canada. Even women like Jean Augustine arrived here to work as a domestic. She later became the first Black woman elected as an MP in the House of Commons and the first to serve in the federal Cabinet.

Most of the women made Canada their home and reunited their families. It is now up to us to carry on their dreams and goals for a better life.

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