THE WEST INDIANS: OUR LONELIEST IMMIGRANTS
Most of them are women without men. Some are men without hope. Almost all are permanent strangers in a white land that offers neither rebuff nor welcome. A visiting West Indian Negro reports on the sad handful of compatriots who got through the screen of our immigration policy to live here in exile
PEOPLE WHO LIVE on small islands can’t travel very far: the sea happens so quickly. The sea is their only knowledge of a frontier. And that’s why the distance others call a continent doesn’t quite make sense to islanders until they are transported there.
So I thought, as 1 set out to learn about Toronto. It was the wrong time of year for rain, but this was a very wet week with wind like a mild hang-over from winter. I recalled the apology an immigration official once made. “Climate,” he’d said, “it’s the only reason we stop West Indians coming here.” But the weather wasn’t so hostile and I continued, loitering here and there with one intention. I had hoped to hear a voice, any voice whose sound would tell me where its owner came from. For the West Indians talk the same language in several different tongues; Barbados will not be confused with Jamaica, and Trinidad mocks them both. That’s why 1 waited—to recognize one of those accents. Soon 1 gave up the game. After all, my business was black faces, and it’s difficult not to notice what a Negro looks like. But the streets of Toronto seemed utterly white that day.
When 1 thought of West Indians in Canada I had a vision of islands submerged in an ocean of land. This feeling was confirmed by some figures and a phrase in Immigration Department literature which speaks of "classes of person admissible to Canada.”
In September 1959, thirty-eight West Indians arrived from Barbados to work as domestic servants wherever they were sent. Twenty of them had been assigned to families in Montreal. The others filled similar vacancies in Quebec, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. In November of the same year, Trinidad provided thirty-two. They had come to do the same kind of work and
their distribution followed a similar pattern. Eight stayed in Montreal; seven traveled to Toronto; and the remaining seven went to Oakville, Ottawa, Carleton Place, Ont., and Winnipeg. Each month added its own quota and as the figures increased the continent assumed more colossal dimensions. The total for that year stopped at the official maximum of 280.
Many would have been strangers from the start, since they had come from nine different islands and the mainland territory of British Guiana. Now they were further separated, serving white families _ and searching for friends in seventeen different and unknown places that stretched across Canada, a dispersal covering 4,000 miles. And all of them, women.
You begin to wonder whether these statistics throw any light on what might conceivably be a Canadian policy of selection. The West Indian concludes that in the minds of those who arrange these matters, there are two urgent preoccupations. One is with sex; a fear, that is, of importing the black male. The other appears to be a technique of separation. West Indians may enter, but at a rate, and in a way that allows the vast continental distances to swallow up their numbers: Hamilton, nine; London, two; Calgary, eight; Vancouver, two.
“IT IS COMFORTABLE, BUT LONELY”
A minority derives its confidence from numbers and if these, already so few, are depleted by distance, no group can find the power to organize. Some decent, fanatical individual may continue his struggle to convert newcomers but a communal sense can’t thrive if it is permanently restricted by such a lack of numbers.
One afternoon, in the prosperous district of Forest Hill in Metropolitan Toronto, I went to visit a West Indian domestic ser-
vant. The house was set far back from the street with a neat ridge of grass sloping all around and up to the steps. It looked almost plain on the outside but on entering I could feel a new luxury descend on everything. The carpet spread out like nature everywhere. It climbed up the stairs and finally disappeared in the color of the walls. Every footstep was made silent by the texture and depth of that turf. In the living room, one sofa rolled itself out to the full length of the wall. A small chandelier and two red candlesticks were mirrored in the polished surface of the dining table.
"Do you like working here?”
"It is comfortable,” the woman said, "but lonely.”
She waited on a family of four. It took some time before 1 noticed her white cotton frock, so simple, and astonishingly subtle in its design. You knew she wore it on the job yet no one could have guessed if it was meant to be a servant’s uniform. It would have been perfect for a First Communion. She had made it herself.
She was a short woman of peasant stock, deep black, with strong, very delicate hands, and small, lucid eyes that seemed always on the alert. She had been educated to read and write but needlework was her greatest passion. When she talked, I could recognize the rhythm of Jamaican speech.
“And how do the people in this family spend their time?” After a moment's reflection she answered: “The husband, he goes to work. The children, they go to school. And the wife, she goes to games.”
The wife had gone to games so we sat in the large hygienic kitchen with its invisible cupboards and a white telephone which seemed so necessary and new. Her story was typical. About three years ago she was one of sixty-six women who had been selected from a total of 1,500 for domestic service in
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She has a two-room apartment, radio, television, magazines, a sewing machine. But she is alone.
Canada. This was the second family for whom she had worked. She was now earning $145 a month, but her first raise of ten dollars had come only after a brief and decisive altercation with the wife. Her employers had made a vague promise about an increase. Then they forgot and she thought it her duty to remind them.
Ihe wife said: "You probably don’t know that sonic top class servants don’t ever get that much."
This remark seemed to be a denial of her efficiency, and the West Indian waded in. "What you mean top class?” she asked. “Please answer me this one question. You satisfied with my work or not?”
"Yes, you work quite well." the wife admitted.
“Then don’t ever talk ’bout top class to me again.”
The wife gave her the raise and the matter was forgotten.
Awake at seven, she immediately assumes the triple role of mother, maid, and friend. This is the children’s hour for a boy and a girl, both under ten. She supervises baths, prepares breakfast, hears all complaints, and gives advice on regulations at school. They have become used to her. Like the children from her own rural background, they listen as though waiting for the rain to stop. Then they are off.
Her relationship with the adults is more formal. The husband’s demands are relayed by his wife whose talk never gets beyond domesticities. They are agreed that the West Indian will not clean any windows. Everything else may come within her duties for the day. The hours are long, but she may choose her own intervals of rest.
In the evening she meets the children again. They take their meals with her in the kitchen. She moves between them and the parents in the dining room. When eating is over, and all the fragments of supper are cleared away, servant and family separate. It may be eight o’clock when she retires to a two-room apartment on the third floor. This is her home, self-contained, and soft as cloud with carpet. It is furnished with all the items an average citizen may expect from an affluent land: television, a radio, periodicals passed on from the family’s reading room, and in one corner, her sewing machine. But she is alone.
Of course, she is free to go where she likes after work. There arc other domestics among her friends, but she feels, at this hour, that they live too far away. Such distance is not for walking, and fares soon become a luxury. Moreover, she doesn’t trust the streets at night. So. she may read. She often sews. She waits for Thursday, a day of reprieve.
It is the domestics’ regular half day. It begins with telephone arrangements for a meeting somewhere in town, ihey may choose the subway, or some building that each has remembered for its size. 1 hey come together to decide what to do. In the meantime, they walk. I he stores become a kind of bazaar they attend from the outside. Gazing is free, and it is good to be together. But nothing has happened, and already the half day threatens to disappear. Soon it is time they made up their minds and hurriedly they do. They choose the Church.
A friend took me to the church where the women always meet on Thursdays. It was really the basement of the church that was open to them at this hour. Many were already there. We arrived in a welter of
voices. It felt like a picnic in an air raid shelter. The walls were steep, and the whole place trembled with noise. Behind a partition on the right, the younger women were playing netball. There was a table in the centre where others sat, eating or waiting to be served. Through a small window on the left, you could see a group in the kitchen piling rice and chicken onto plates. Up front there was a small chapel where a couple were rehearsing hymns. Everything happened at the same time, food, worship and fun. And always the Negro pastor was there. He seemed to spread like a shadow through the basement. He watched the game, whispered advice to the kitchen, and before you had swallowed, was back at the table lathering welcome on someone who had just arrived.
The church hall becomes a substitute for home. Strangers for a while, these domestics soon appeared as a federation of different islands meeting in judgment on living conditions both at home and abroad.
They spoke freely about conditions of service, differences in wages, attitudes and habits among the families who employed them. Wages varied from a minimum of seventy-five to ninety dollars a month. An increase might depend on luck. Some families were more generous than others, some domestics more assertive in their demands. They all agreed that Jewish families paid the highest wages.
Such talk of wages threw light on the social gradations of wealthier Canadians. The domestic was a status symbol in some homes, and the size of a wage could be used as evidence of the employer’s status among social rivals.
But it would be a mistake to think of these West Indians as domestics in any permanent sense. The scheme was their only chance of getting to Canada and they stuck to the jobs because jobs gave them security while they looked around. I hcv were obsessed by prospects for the future. Many had already become nursing assistants in the hope that this would lead to hospital training. These hoped to become professional nurses. Others had crossed the border into the U. S. where they felt it would be easier to find courses in secretarial work, dressmaking, or hairdressing. Their thinking was geared to the future.
This scheme for domestics has now become the principal source of West Indian migration to Canada, it was started in 1955 with a quota of 100. A year later it was increased to 200 and during the next four years the figure rose slowly to 280 annually. In the six years of its application, the scheme has allowed 1.320 women to enter Canada. They achieve the status of landed immigrants and after five years they may apply for full Canadian citizenship.
These are the circumstances which these
women meet to discuss in the basement of the church. “You hear what happen to Jean?” a woman says. “Good Lord, look what she gone and do!” Everyone at the table is eager and apprehensive. Some don’t know Jean, but the news is important. It includes them. “She call me up in tears this morning,” the woman explains. “It is like she may have to go to jail. That’s all she keep saying on the phone. They going to send me to jail.”
A Canadian salesman had lured Jean into the trap of installment buying. He had deceived her about the price of his wares, and had left the impression that she could pay as she pleased. Thinking of gifts for the folks hack home. Jean ordered an enormous quantity of stainless pots and pans. Now a letter had come from a firm Jean couldn’t remember hearing about. It read like a summons and the West Indian peasant regards any business with the court as a certain step toward imprisonment.
“He seem such a nice man,” the woman continues, “and Jean even thought he own the store himself. But his name don’t even appear on the papers. It is complete strangers she dealing with.” The story is a warning to the others.
So the women talked until the organ reminded them it was night. Everyone collected in the chapel up front. The hymn books were passed around, and the day finished as the pastor had planned it.
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide:
The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide.
Thursday was over. The half day had died slowly around them. Now it was time to go back to the lonely comfort of those suburban homes, and the sexless agony that each felt, but none could decently protest. They were women without men.
For men, there is no scheme comparable to this plan for allowing entry of female domestic help, but the Canadian government does not commit itself to any quotas restricting male immigration from the West Indies. Any man can try his luck, but his success will depend on the interpretation of the words “persons admissible to Canada.”
If a man asks for admission because he feels he satisfies the Canadian government’s requirements for useful citizenship, he may still be refused on grounds that he doesn’t belong to any of the classes of persons admissible. This formula excludes no one specifically; it just can’t accommodate those not included. On the face of it, the West Indian would be wrong if he said he had been discriminated against because of his color. But the figures might support such a suspicion.
A formula, which appears to apply
equally to all, allowed entry to Canada of roughly 200.000 Italians between 1951 and I960. The number of Negroes (excluding those from the United States), largely West Indians, admitted in the years 1946-56 was 1,910.
But there is another, more revealing, figure. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration reports that in that same decade. 1946-56, 5,812 immigrants were admitted “who gave the British West Indies as their country of former residence.” According to my figures then, 3,902 of these were non-Negroes—from a country whose residents, whether professional, clerical or unskilled, are predominantly black.
How does it happen? After three centuries of mixed breeding, many West Indians can claim almost any racial origin they choose. An application for entry is dealt with on its own merits, and the merits arc decided by the official on the spot, but the applicant has to supply information concerning his racial origin. This gives the official his cue. The result is that two West Indians, comparable in merit as men and possibly first cousins, can have entirely different experiences in dealing with Canadian Immigration officials. One may declare his ancestry as Spanish. Portuguese or British and satisfy the official. The other says “Negro,” since he looks it, and finds himself involved in correspondence that may last for years. It is a common complaint among West Indian Negroes in Canada that they are not accorded the full privileges of British subjects. And yet the number of Negro men entering Canada from the West Indies has shown an interesting increase in recent years. During the years 1957 to 1960, there were approximately 1,102. (The figure is not remarkable until we remember that only 1,910 were admitted in the previous ten years.) None of these were students. Indeed, many came in the category of “dependents not destined to labor force.” How, then, do such men qualify as “classes of persons admissible”?
The answer is partly to be found in the industriousness of the domestic servants. As late as 1947, a West Indian with the status of landed immigrant, was only allowed to bring a wife or husband to Canada. Later the law was relaxed to include close relatives, brothers or sisters. Surprisingly enough, this was also extended to fiancés. Many a domestic servant has used this opportunity to sponsor a brother. Some Canadians have helped by guaranteeing employment on the relative’s arrival. The position of the fiancé is at once straightforward and risky. He must marry within thirty days, or return. In the history of West Indian migration, men have always been the pioneers who later
sent for their women. In Canada, today, the pattern is new: it is the women who must import their husbands.
The importing seldom takes place without a struggle with officialdom. During my first week in Canada, a young West Indian nurse came to see me and to renew an acquaintance started years ago in London. England. She was now in the thick of trouble over the matter of her fiancé. She had been working in a Toronto hospital for three years. Her references were excellent. The fiancé belonged to the most respectable of clerical employees in Jamaica. The Immigration Official, therefore, had to concede that their general background was beyond reproach. Yet he insisted that he couldn’t certify entry into Canada until she had proved the man was really her fiancé. Did she have any letters vhich would help to strengthen her claim? He thought it most natural that she should .surrender her personal correspondence in order to satisfy his curiosity.
This case is not unique. Some weeks later I saw the last of a series of letters written to a domestic servant who had been having the same difficulty with the immigration office. The official had listed fcis reservations about the fiancé’s entry, and his letter finished with this impertirent assumption: “Should you remain interested in this matter the case could be reviewed in six months.” You would think he was replying to the lady’s request for a change of lavatory bowl. This is the techrique of postponement whose purpose is to dissuade. You wear the applicant down in the hope that his original impulse will die a natural death. Like the formula which hides behind that phrase, “classes of persons admissible to Canada.” it increases the West Indian’s frustration. And one unsavory result is the rise of the professional contact man.
He may be a West Indian who is also a naturalized Canadian citizen. An amateur public figure, he has probably taken part in many conventions, served on committees, and conducted an impressive correspondence with charitable organizations. He speaks on behalf of his ethnic group, but insists on all occasions that he is an ardent Canadian. Most important of all, he has friends in Ottawa.
One evening I sat with a West Indian in a Montreal bar, and listened to the details of five “cases of immigration” that had been successfully handled by the contact man. All five were West Indians who had sought advice on the best way of getting to Canada. The contact man allowed no direct communication between himself and these people. His instructions were relayed through someone else, and these were very simple: make no application; send birth certificates and photographs. When these arrived with the first installment of the fee the contact man left for Ottawa. At appropriate intervals during the next three months, the five West Indians all arrived, carrying passports no official at any frontier could question. It was expensive in dollars, but each had achieved an impossible status. Officially, they were now Canadians by birth.
West Indians in Montreal were holding a dance on the night I heard about the contact man. These dances are a regular form of entertainment, like the Thursday basement meetings in Toronto. But the Moose Hall is not the house of God. and Montreal allows more mischief than Toronto. The bar was run by three French Canadians who measured drinks like medicine, and seemed reluctant to return your change. This was the only part of the room where you could see what you were doing. Elsewhere the enormous crowd of faces moved about in darkness with occasional shafts of pink and blue light pointing from the ceiling. During an intermis-
sion, the bandleader complained people were not eating enough. “So. please. I beg of you — buy up the food.” He was choking the microphone with his voice. The words hit the walls like thunder and dissolved into the general noise. Soon the music took over. It was a good band, and you could tell from the eloquent madness of the dancers that they approved. They had entered their familiar state of being possessed by the music. For that’s the effect of calypso, well-served to a West Indian crowd in exile. It attacks the spine, and works an intoxication on every part of
the body. It doesn’t matter how you hear what’s being played. There is an instinctive bond between legs and ears. It was good to see this.
But there was a sad excess of women. The most cautious estimate would have put them at five to every man. And in many cases the men would monopolize their partners for the night. In spite of the many couples wildly dancing, almost every chair around the room remained occupied. Sometimes the women could bear it no longer; so they partnered one another and plunged into the crowd, danc-
ing together in a great free-for-all. Someone said. “Women like mangoes in this place. Abundant and at low price.” He was a student. Only a student can afford to make this kind of joke. For these "mangoes” were largely domestic servants and the student has a special conception of this class of people. The dance was providing the domestic servants w'ith a necessary ration of fun. To the student, it was all an ordinary bit of end-of-term slumming. A responsible West Indian informed me that at one university in Montreal, West Indian students had drafted a résolu-
tion forbidding domestics to attend their student functions. He was ashamed, and wished it were possible to conceal what he knew.
For the purpose of statistics West Indian students are divided into three groups; private, scholarship and special. Scholarship students are the responsibility of their territorial governments. In the academic year 1958-59, there were forty-two of these. Special students include those who have received Canada Council fellowships or similar grants made to West Indians. In the academic year 1959-60 there were about twenty-three such students. But the vast majority of students come within the private group. They were 1,179 in 1959, and 1,209 in I960. They enter Canada on the understanding that they will be able to pay their way. Unlike the domestics, they cannot become landed immigrants, and as students they are not supposed to work. But the majority could never complete a three-year course without finding employment of some kind. So the clause which allows them into Canada later works to their disadvantage. They are not among the class of persons who can freely claim a work permit. Once more we encounter that formula — which applies to all students, irrespective of nationality or race.
Vacation is a time of great turbulence for the West Indian student. He complains, and his experience is his proof, that others find it easier to get work. But how can he make the charge of discrimination effective? A formal complaint would amount to a formal confession that he had been trying to break the law, since a student, remember, is not supposed to work. And the penalty can be deportation. So it is wiser to contain the anger and try again. In this respect, the student’s life offers the spectacle of a man who must
not raise his voice. He lives by the charity of those who have the power to employ. As it happens, charity often assigns him to the railroads, or the factory. Others rent taxis and ply a driver’s trade by night.
The student doesn’t come within the category of immigrant but his skin unites him in the general predicament of domestic servant and railway porter. Education, however, has crowned him with the illusion of privilege, and a certain servility of mind often urges him to hide behind the prestige which education is supposed to confer. He is a product of the temporary democracy which takes place on every campus. Canada does not embrace him. but it never pushes him away. The university reminds him that he is not in Canada to stay. And, although Canadian citizenship might attract him, it could never compete with his wish for graduation day.
On the eve of my departure I had lunch with a West Indian civil servant in Montreal. Apart from the pleasure of seeing him again, it gave me an opportunity to check my general impressions with his long experience of the West Indian community. He had studied in Toronto years ago. He had enjoyed it but he couldn’t help feeling that something important had been missed. It had nothing to do with academic standards. His regret was more personal and more concrete. He was still feeling the need to come to grips with his reality as a colonial and a Negro in the modern world. And Canada could not help him there. Canada could not even decide what Canada should do. There was no political party whose purpose or direction could give meaning to the struggle of its Negro citizens. There was no collective voice with which a Negro could honestly identify his own. -fr