Black History or Back History- Canada, the Caribbean and the Domestic Worker Programme – By Yvonne Sam

Black History or Back History- Canada, the Caribbean and the Domestic Worker Programme

By Yvonne Sam


Opinion - commentary -analysisDespite the demand in Canada for services which Caribbean natives were able to supply, yet up to the middle of the twentieth century it remained impossible to gain entry into the Canadian labour market. Only after the failure of various waves of European migration to adequately address the demand for domestic workers was consideration given to Caribbean people, previously marginalized as a result of selective immigration practices.

The month of February is once again with us, and accompanying it is the 28 day acknowledgement of the contributions made by Blacks in Canada. I am certain that from the closure last February to the current opening this February neither the study, dissemination and sharing of history of Blacks in Canada was carried out. It is no mystery, though contrary to expectations but Black History ends February 28 one year and recommences February 1, the following year.     

A mature democracy has as its primary obligation, a duty to not only celebrate its victories but also acknowledge its failures and shortcomings. Plainly put Black History Month should give us all the opportunity to learn the stories of people we may not have known about until now. It is essential that the greater Canadian community know a history of Canada that includes all of the founding experiences, and be aware of the contributions made.As a nation that boasts of diversity, all histories need to be known, all stories to be told. One needs traditional history to engender a common culture, and Black History to engender a clearer and more complete picture.

The government of Canada created and produced a poster in honour of Black History Month, featuring inspirational athletes, beneath a caption that read: Proud of Our History. I wonder to which history the reference was being made.

Lyrics to the song ‘We are Family’ made popular by Sister Sledge immediately took center stage in my cranium, on seeing such evidence of Canada’s smug satisfaction in her professed racial harmony and multicultural success. Canadians like to self-congratulate on not being like the United States. The truth must be told that Canada has a far worse race problem than her neighbor to the South.  The problem is that we just can’t see it very easily.

Like the U.S, Canada also participated in slavery, segregated schools and residences and discriminated through its immigration policies. We do not need to look at the past through the prism of “Black History”, but instead it should all be seen as a significant part of the larger Canadian context. As a nation should we proud of that history?  Yes, our Black citizens rightfully deserve full recognition for their achievements and contributions to Canadian society for more than one month of the year. However, it is my unwavering belief that an account of Black History in Canada is woefully incomplete without an understanding of how racism has both informed it and shaped it, as evidenced by the treatment meted out to black Caribbean immigrant workers who journeyed to Canada under the Domestic Foreign Workers programme.

We have been repeatedly led to believe and told that racism is absent. Granted it may be less overt than previously, but absence in one area means that it is flourishing in new and more sophisticated forms in other areas.

On June 8, 1955 following a cabinet meeting, the decision was taken to admit into Canada on an experimental basis100 domestic workers from the British West Indies. Seventy-five were to be selected from Jamaica and twenty-five from Barbados. This cabinet decision heralded the beginning of the Caribbean domestic scheme whereby an annual quota, determined by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, was selected from the participating territories of the British West Indies. Canada made it explicitly clear that if the experiment was not successful, the Caribbean domestic scheme would be terminated, and that if any of the women had to be deported it would be done at the expense of the particular Caribbean territory.

What was not known at the outset, despite it being flaunted otherwise, the domestic workers scheme was a last resort to partially manage a labour shortage in Canadian homes, and designed and executed in a manner to make sure that Canada got maximum benefits at low costs. Of further significance is the fact that this scheme took place during a period when Blacks and East Indians, the two dominant groups in the Caribbean, were not welcome in Canada.

The Daily Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica in the issue dated September 22, 1955 wrote: “It is understood that the opportunities in this field of employment in Canada are very great, and it is hoped that the experiment will prove highly successful, and will further enhance the reputation overseas of Jamaican Workers.” The first page of a document prepared by the government of Barbados captioned Advice To West Indian Women Recruited for Work in Canada as Household Helps, read as follows: “You have a wonderful opportunity ahead, but you also have the responsibility to make good, so that in future years other West Indian women can look forward to similar opportunities. This is a comparatively new venture and you should regard yourself as missionaries who are resolved to succeed…” The final line of the documentread: “Remember the West Indies relies on you to do your part towards the success of this scheme.” In defending the decision, Canada claimed that it had made an exception to its racial immigration policy in 1955 “as a gesture of good will and in the interest of Canada’s important trade relations with Jamaica.” As soon as the inauguration of a domestic workers scheme with Jamaica and Barbados became known, the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean began clamouring for a chance to participate.

As early as July 1955, even before the first batch of domestic workers left for Canada, the Trinidad press demanded answers from the Canadian Government Trade Commissioner in Port of Spain as to why it was not included in the scheme.  By September 14, 1955, John Dabreu, Acting Labour Commissioner in Grenada forwarded a letter to the Canadian Trade Commissioner pleading that Grenada be considered in future domestic schemes.  On November 23, 1956, a high level delegation from St. Lucia arrived in Ottawa to plead for the island to be allocated a quota under the domestic workers scheme. The team met with the Minister and Deputy Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. They spoke about the unemployment problem in St. Lucia, particularly among the female population, and indicated that they were looking to Canada for some relief. The team left quite hopeful as the Minister assured them that they would be considered in the 1957 quota.

In 1956, when Canada added British Guiana to the list of territories participating in the domestic workers scheme, it was stipulated that girls of East Indian racial origin could not be included in the quota. This denial of Indo-Caribbean women as domestic workers caused some embarrassment for Trade Commissioner C. E. S. Smith as his counterpart in British Guiana, Labour Commissioner J. F. Ramphal, was of East Indian origin. “I had a little embarrassment when discussing our programme with him as he is of East Indian origin and asked whether girls of his racial origin would be accepted in our group of 30. Fortunately, the ban did not last much longer. By June of the same year, Mr. Ramphal was informed that the Minister of Immigration had confirmed that the ban on recruiting domestic workers from Asian racial origin had been eliminated.

As has been afore-stated the domestic scheme came about neither as a measure of good will towards the Caribbean nor as a means of boosting the trading relationship between Canada and the Caribbean, but rather that the Caribbean was a last resort as a recruitment region for domestic workers and was selected because of the dwindling supply of European domestics and the growing demand for domestic help in Canada. Further evidence revealed that on the eve of the commencement of the Caribbean domestic scheme, Canada made a final desperate attempt to revive the European domestic scheme but met with limited success. Citizenship and Immigration refused to commence a domestic scheme with the Caribbean. Instead, they lowered the standards in a last desperate effort to lure European domestics into Canada. The proposal from the Immigration Branch was to increase the age limit from forty-five to fifty years. The qualifications and experience required for selection were to be relaxed to the extent that applicants could be chosen even if they never did domestic work outside their home.

It was therefore the inability of Europe to meet the demand for domestic servants which forced Canada in 1955 to make an exception to its decades-old immigration policy of excluding black people. The so termed ‘first wave’ of the domestic scheme ran from 1955 to 1967 and was based on a special quota arrangement, where each participating territory was granted a particular quota of girls for migration into Canada.

Canada also adopted more stringent measures with the Caribbean domestics than it did with those from Europe. It was stipulated that the women must be between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five, a condition was never attached to the contracts of European domestic workers. This age range ensured that Canada would get women who were strong and healthy and who would be capable of providing many years of service, and would be less likely to be a burden on the health system. It was important that they be single so that they could work without the interruption of having a family. Being single would also save money in social provisions such as housing, schools, hospitals, transportation and other infrastructural facilities. Applicants had to be in good physical and mental health and undergo complete medical pre-screening in accordance with the standards laid down by the Department of National Health and Welfare in Canada.

What was kept a secret from both the participants of the 1955 group and the governments of Jamaica and Barbados was that on arrival in Canada, the women would be met by a team of doctors who would proceed to take a sample Wasserman test, to detect the presence of syphilis. According to a letter dated October 25, 1955, from Director of Immigration to the Chief, Administration Division: It, therefore, would be appreciated if you would advise Dr. Frost in advance of the arrival of these people at Dorval in order that he may arrange for his doctors to do the sampling. He seemed very pleased that they will be given an opportunity of making a sample of so large a number as seventy-five. You are not to advise the West Indies authorities of the test which is being conducted on arrival.

Dr. Frost ordered the test because of the high percentage of syphilis in the West Indies. When asked why the test could not be done in the islands he stated that their condition could change prior to their arrival. He further stated that a test may show positive for syphilis when the individual may only be suffering from yaws which also creates a positive reaction but is not syphilis.  While Dr. Frost may have been genuine in his intention, this move further supported the notion about blacks being sexually promiscuous.

Another significant stipulation was that the women had to be unmarried, for it was the thinking of the immigration officials that the spouse of a domestic worker would likely be unskilled. Canada was trying to protect itself from an influx of unskilled coloured dependents who could enter through the sponsorship route as it was legal for a Caribbean domestic worker with Canadian Citizenship to sponsor her spouse, fiancé (e), parents, grandparents, children and siblings. Canadian officials were concerned, if not alarmed, that Caribbean domestics had started sponsoring relatives soon after they had been in Canada for one year. Their main concern was the swelling of the unskilled labour force in Canada. They reasoned that since domestic workers were unskilled in their home country, then their fiancés and relatives who they would later sponsor would be from the same, or possibly lower, economic background.

The main area of commonality between the domestic workers from the Caribbean and those from Europe was that both were allowed landed immigrant status upon arrival in Canada. It was not the original intention of Ottawa to grant immigrant status to black domestic workers. As Canada had a closed door policy towards coloured immigrants, the domestic scheme was virtually the only means by which a limited number of women could be admitted into Canada. Certain professionals therefore succeeded in using the domestic scheme as a gateway to Canada. They came with the intention of completing the one-year compulsory service after which they would seek to upgrade themselves and find employment in their particular profession. Some were successful in establishing themselves in careers such as nursing and teaching, while others found that they had to remain in domestic employment for much longer than they anticipated

A memorandum dated January 19, 1962 Ellen Fairclough, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, tabled new immigration regulations in the House of Commons. The core of this new immigration policy was section 31 which placed the greatest emphasis upon education, training and skills as the main consideration of admissibility into Canada, rather than the country of origin of the applicant or the colour of skin. While this change of policy was welcome news for prospective immigrants who were previously affected by Canada’s selective immigration policy, it also marked the beginning of the end of the special quota privileges enjoyed by Commonwealth Caribbean islands, particularly the smaller islands.

The argument of the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration was that there was no longer a need for a quota arrangement as future domestic servants, as other applicants would be considered based on their education, training, skills and other qualifications in accordance with the regulation. The abolition of the special quota caused some uneasiness among Caribbean leaders, particularly those of the smaller territories. This special arrangement for domestic servants from the West Indies continued for a few more years. Eventually it was eliminated by the Immigration Regulations of October 1, 1967, bringing an end to the Caribbean domestic scheme on January 1, 1968.

Yvonne Sam

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On February 6, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for that valuable history lesson, Yvonne Sam. Far too much of our Caribbean-Black history is hidden.

  • Ivan harding  On February 6, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    What has happened about the awarding of a Guyana Association 50th anniversary scholarship?

    Inspite of the hard work which you and I have made concerning the criteria etc. nothing has been done.

    What a shame.The Association seem to have more pressing priorities ies; Parties and dances.

    This is typical of our people.

    Dr Harding.


  • demerwater  On February 8, 2017 at 4:11 am

    In school, I found the subject, “History”, a bit boring. I am still trying to find that flaw in my character that would account for this lack of interest. Over the years I have made gallant efforts to fill the gap; and the foregoing treatise is quite enlightening.
    I recall reading that in British Guiana, the Indentureship Program did not start with the people of India; but it certainly ended with them, when it was discovered that they were the “ideal” people for the program. They were motivated to sign up again and again, because ‘the land was flat and fertile; it would support the cultivation of rice – a crop that the East Indian was quite familiar with’. It plausibly explains to me, the connectivity between East Indians and the sugar and rice industries in Guyana.
    I am tending to the conclusion that a country must control who comes into it.
    I am tending to the belief that the Humanitarian criteria are different from the Economic criteria.

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