Trailblazers from the Caribbean had a dream
Armed only with a youthful sense of adventure and a passionate desire to make a difference, sixteen young women from Barbados stepped off the plane on a wet snowy night in November.
The year was 1955 and Canada had begun the Domestic Immigration Program, offering single women age 21 to 34 from Caribbean countries permanent residency in return for one year’s work as “household helpers” in a Canadian home. Once this obligation was met, they would be free to pursue their dreams of a better life in a new land. The women had no way of knowing then of the strength of character, endurance and courage that would be required of them to realize this dream. They most likely had no idea that Canada’s immigration policies had been hostile to people of colour, deeming them unable to adjust to Canadian society and the cold weather.
A tiny Gazette article heralded their arrival the following day. It described the girls as “shy” but “vastly amused” by the reception they got from then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent and a bevy of journalists and photographers. In part it read: “For many years now, the demand for domestics has exceeded the supply in Canada. But if Canadian girls are not attracted to the job of helping with the housework, the National Employment Service found a different attitude to advertisements in Barbados.”
Loleta Johnson had heard that Canada was a place of opportunity. “I wanted to know the world, and heard on the radio that girls were wanted to work as domestics. I put my name down and got a call. They sent us to take a course in cooking and household management, which, at 23, I already knew how to do.” At the Housecraft Centre, she and other girls were timed performing chores such as cooking, washing and ironing. There she met two other women, Lyndall Hunte and Eda Tyrrell, and lifelong friendships were formed.
Domestic work, with its endless hours and low wages from which air fare (over two months’ salary) and various other items would be deducted, proved to be challenging. “When guests would come for dinner, you’d be in the kitchen long hours then up at 6:30 with the kids. I wasn’t accustomed to this big elaborate house, upstairs and downstairs, cleaning the basement, waxing and polishing and picking up all the toys.” It didn’t help that one little boy she had to pick up from school used to run away from her. “There weren’t many black people around then,” Johnson said.
The women soon discovered the Negro Community Centre, directed by Owen Rowe. It was a place that provided comfort, acceptance, entertainment and social activities difficult to find for a newcomer all alone. Some Montreal restaurants simply didn’t serve black clients and just waited until they “got the message” and left.
Looking for housing wasn’t easy in those days, Hunte recalls. “I walked the street up and down and though there was a sign for a room for rent, they told me there was no room.” Eventually a Jewish man rented her a room, Hunte said. “He was an immigrant too.”
When, after saving carefully for years, Tyrrell made an offer to purchase a house, her real estate agent counselled her not to disclose her tiny annual salary, or she would “never get” the mortgage. “I told a white lie, and got the house,” Tyrrell said of the downtown house she still lives in.
Much of the experience of the women depended on the goodwill of the families they were sent to, since there were no measures in place to protect them from being exploited, says historian Dr. Dorothy Williams. “[Domestics’] labour was owned. Between being an employer and being someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone’s future, there is, implicit, the threat of deportation or sexual violence.”
All three women left domestic service early, eventually finding work they enjoyed. Hunte remembers what it was like looking for a job back then. “Eaton’s was not hiring black people. Simpson’s was, but had them out of [the clients’]sight. Years later, they hired [black] girls behind the counter. Many black people worked behind the scenes – you would never know.”
The Domestic Immigration Program lasted until 1967, by which time, in part thanks to Donald Moore and the Negro Citizenship Association, Canada’s restrictive immigration policy had become more open.
Antonia Sealy, a trained librarian, came to Canada in 1961, to further her education. She found it impossible at the time to find employment commensurate with her qualifications. “I was warned by my family it wasn’t going to be a bed of roses,” Sealy said, and it wasn’t. “[Working as a domestic] was the only way you could come here. They promised that you would spend a year with a family and after that you could go and work according to your qualifications. But most jobs I applied for I was told I was over-qualified or I had qualifications but not the experience in Canada. People with high expectations did not do well.”
Some women left domestic service fairly quickly; others stayed with families for decades. Hundreds sent for their fiancés and families, sponsoring and sustaining them, often doing double duty as housewives and breadwinners.
Fifty years after their arrival, these women were honoured by the NCC, the High Commissioner of Barbados, and the Canadian government. As MP Raymonde Folco wrote: “Barbados’ initiative in beginning the discussions, at a time when broad-based immigration from non-white countries was biased, paved the way – today, people from Barbados continue to make significant contributions to our country’s social and economic development.”