The Black Women Who Helped Build Canada

Much of my time as a first-generation Black Canadian woman is spent contemplating the ideas of identity, belonging, culture and history -- and the older I get, the more this last point rises in importance. What am I made of? Where do I come from? What impact have my people made in the lands that I call home? Finding the answers to these questions has been a complicated task, and leads me to liken my familial and cultural histories to a broken necklace: the strings holding it all together have snapped and the beads have been strewn about the place, but I'm slowly able to find and gather the pieces and make it whole again.

I've been particularly interested in uncovering the stories of Caribbean women in Canadian history. What made up the mettle of women who, like my own mother, left the life they knew for the hope of something better?

Until the "liberalization" of immigration policy in the early 1960s, Canada had racially discriminatory laws designed to prohibit non-whites from entering the country. In order to fill its post-war need for domestic labor in the 1950s, Canada began recruiting Black women from the Caribbean. The West Indian Domestic Scheme launched in 1955 and brought thousands of women from the region to Canada -- in exchange for one year of service as domestic workers, these women were granted permanent residency and the eventual opportunity to send for other family members to join them in their new home.

In order to be accepted into the scheme, Black Caribbean hopefuls had to:

  • be between the ages of 18-35
  • be single (many left families behind, as only the successful applicant was allowed entrance to Canada)
  • have at least an 8th grade education
  • pass a medical examination and interview with Canadian immigration

With little in the way of a transitional welcoming committee, these women arrived to Canada only knowing of the cold and not the other issues that lay waiting: racism, poor employment standards, cultural differences, isolation and the lack or loss of connection to others. While the women did their best to acclimatize to their new lives, it wasn't an easy journey. The reported experiences of domestics were both positive (like Daisy May Gordon, who recounted the kindness of being treated like a family member by her employers) and negative (like Melissa Rowe, who distinctly remembered being overworked and denied personal space by her employers, and feeling culturally isolated), but after one year of work, domestics could seek education and employment in other fields (mainly teaching or nursing).

Toronto's York University recently held a conference honoring the women of the scheme with a keynote address from the Hon. Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to Canada's House of Commons and the first Black woman to serve in Canada's federal Cabinet. Born in Grenada, Augustine came to Canada under the scheme, serving her year as a domestic before finding careers in education and politics.

My initial knowledge of feminism was very second-wave white-dominant, and I simply could not relate. The complexities of my life and the lives of girls and women like me were not represented. Race, class and immigration weighed heavily alongside the gender component, but no literature I found adequately addressed this, so I began my exploration of feminism and womanism through real-life observation. While I'm careful not to ascribe the feminist/womanist title to women who may not call themselves such, my personal brand of womanism is informed in part by the actions of women like the Hon. Jean Augustine and others who came to Canada through the domestic scheme. Where aspects of this history inspired me to dig deeper into my personal politics, much of the same has led other women to divest from certain identities.

My conversations about feminism with older Black Caribbean women often include a waving off of the label on their part. Feminism is often seen as a concern of white women who fought for the right to work outside of the home, earn equal pay for equal work and have the double burden of work inside and outside the home addressed -- all while neglecting to include Black women for whom work had always been a reality. This historical practice of erasure -- deliberately excluding Black women in a fight that they had a rightful place in -- led to an outright rejection or personal redefinition of the feminist label, which still holds true today.

"Diversity" is a hot buzzword that's beginning to lose its impact, and the scope of who it's meant for is narrowing. Across conversations and criticisms of entities like Hollywood, the tech industry, or the current Canadian Prime Minister's upheld promise of gender parity in his Cabinet, it becomes increasingly apparent that gatekeepers are quite satisfied when "diversity" simply means "the inclusion of White women" in spaces primarily occupied by men. In speaking about her time as an educator in late 1970s Toronto, Augustine said that as a Black woman, she had to "wait for my turn" to become a vice principal, then principal. Black women needing to wait their turn is a common sentiment when conversations of advancement and inclusion are at play.

It's not lost on me that the disregarded work of women like Black Caribbean domestics enabled previous and current generations of white Canadian women to progress and be included. It's not lost on me that this country has been built by immigrants' sacrifice of self-actualization or need to work twice as hard to get just as far as their counterparts. It's not lost on me that, as I often say, Canada has the best PR company in the world -- its history of embracing and protecting multiculturalism doesn't hold up when one looks at the living conditions of First Nations people and also learns that Canada didn't loosen racial restrictions from immigration until 1962, only created its Human Rights Act in 1977, and finally solidified its Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The lives of women who came to Canada under the West Indian Domestic Scheme provide an intersectional history of race, class, culture, feminism and politics -- a history that generally stays hidden in this country. Growing up in Canada, Black History Month for me consisted of learning about the history and accomplishments of Black people through an American lens, save for the bit about Canada being the promised land at the end of the Underground Railroad. Finding stories on Black Canadians has largely been a self-taught affair, but learning of the contributions of women under the West Indian Domestic Scheme was a revelation.

In the documentary Domestic Pioneers, former domestic Melissa Rowe says, "You do what you need to do in order to support your family, and that's basically what I was doing and what all of us who came here were trying to do -- is to look for a better life for us, and our families."

As I gather this lost bead in the necklace of my history and identity, I thank these women for their work, their sacrifice and their successes -- and the motivation to ensure that my life reflects the fact that their efforts weren't in vain.

This piece by Bee Quammie originally appeared on The Establishment, a new multimedia site funded and run by women.

Other recent stories include: