Indo-Caribbean Life
in Guyana & Toronto:
A Comparative Survey

By: Bruce Ally

From: Polyphony Vol.12, 1990 pp.16-21
© 1991 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

In the complex mix of communities that make up the South Asian diaspora in Ontario, the unique historical and cultural experience of Indo-Caribbeans separates them as a particularly distinct group. Bruce Ally describes the changes in situation and experience of recent immigrants from Guyana.

Beginning in 1838 more than 600,000 Indians migrated to the Caribbean, including approximately 238,000 to British Guyana. They went as indentured labourers, an alternative work force for the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Though their time in the West Indies was meant to be limited by the contract, Indians who had completed their obligation were allowed to commute their return passages into cash. Many were granted an allotment of land that they could cultivate in addition to their estate work.

With time, distinctive Indo-Caribbean communities were established-especially in Trinidad and British Guyana, where the populations were large enough to form a separate identity and community. In Trinidad, Indians eventually constituted about 45 per cent of the population, and in British Guyana they were the majority.

The Indian family in Guyana is a very close-knit band of extended lineage, which includes two, three, and often four generations living in close proximity. Elders are still valued highly. Their knowledge is seen as relevant to current situations since culturally the way of life has changed very little through the generations. Very often older family members who are no longer gainfully employed are responsible for looking after pre-schoolers. This reinforces the transfer of values and norms, as most personality theorists agree that the significant personality developments occur before the age of eight. Since parents pass their beliefs on to their children and subsequently to their grandchildren, family values have remained constant, and the possibility of family and personality conflicts have been significantly lessened. It is also quite common for adults to continue in the family business or farm and to seek to pass it on to yet another generation.

The general tendency of Indian families and the Indo-Guyanese community generally is to maintain a distinctive and separate identity clearly derived from their attachment to Indian culture. It was entrenched, however, by the determination of the British planters to keep their Indian workers on their estates and prevent them from acquiring an education and mainstream occupations. Nonetheless, by the 1920s, Indians began entering the learned professions, especially law and medicine, in substantial numbers, and the trend toward increasing participation in leadership roles in mainstream society continued until the mid-sixties. The situation began to change when the Indian-dominated People's Progressive Party lost control of the government to the People's National Congress, associated with the Afro-Guyanese. Although there was no absolute ethnic split between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese in regard to these two parties, increasingly violent confrontation entrenched the ethnic division. An increase in racial discrimination and reduced opportunities in the future also caused increasing numbers of Indo-Guyanese to consider emigrating.

The situation in Guyana coincided with the removal of discriminatory immigration regulations in Canada, and in 1967 a flow of Indo-Guyanese immigrants began to arrive, most of them settling in Ontario. They were mostly educated or skilled, but their initial encounter with Canadian racial discrimination and their frustration with the lack of recognition of their trades and professional credentials tempored their sense of arrival at a safe haven. In addition, they had to adapt to a new social situation and to re-establish family and community life in this new and exotic country.

In contrast to the spacious kinship arrangements of their lives in Guyana, most immigrant families tend to begin their lives in Toronto in apartment-style dwellings. These are obviously not suitable for an extended family, and often grandparents are not available for preschoolers. Old-age and retirement homes, which were quite alien institutions in Guyana and the West Indies, have become the norm for families living here. An important effect of this change is the loss of multi-generational participation in the intimate relationship on which the transfer of culture largely depends. This challenge to the family ethos is the first step in the loss of the extended family core in the diaspora.

In Guyana, an extended family either shares one dwelling, or parts of the same family live in very close proximity to each other. Consequently, when one person or subfamily, such as a recently married couple was having difficulty the rest of the family would join together, closing ranks by confronting the issues without supporting either party and forcing the couple to resolve the conflict and resume living together. This process often proved beneficial since it forced each party to deal with his or her own view of the roles and relationship in a situation that virtually required accommodation. The family did not usually attempt to foster the argument; even if they did, they were still intent on achieving a resolution and seeking a reconciliation as the only solution.

For those living in a transplanted extended family in the less spacious and less leisurely Toronto environment, traditional pressures in support of relationships may become part of the problem. As mentioned earlier, the majority of West Indian immigrants live in apartments, at least initially; and in the cramped confines of a two- or three-bedroom apartment, mother, father, occasionally grandparents and one or two children can lose their sense of private space and experience a continuous invasion of their privacy. These living conditions, if not guaranteed to create conflict, certainly will generate greater argumentativeness and a tendency to maintain hostilities and will reduce the possibility of reconciliation. Guyanese, like Canadians, are no less prone to the disease of divorce. In fact, for the reasons previously mentioned, and for other reasons to be discussed later, the Guyanese divorce rate in Toronto is statistically higher than the Canadian average.

In the villages and towns of their homeland, religion was a major stabilizing influence, which determined customary experiences; marking the year's calendar with cohesive community events. In every village, the Hindu, Muslim, or Christian shared with family and friends a temple, mosque, or church that was as much their own as their home. The congregations of these institutions were a further extended family, providing added support in difficult times as well as the opportunity to share in the celebrations of life. By virtue of their relatively small size, congregation members become a necessary and integral part of the every-day functioning, maintenance, and in fact, the very life of their churches. The result was a sense of cohesion and the confidence that people were able to depend on each other. Consequently, as in the case of the couple experiencing marital difficulties, they were faced with additional pressure from their religious peer group and elders to restore their relationship or be socially ostracized.

In Guyana proximity to church is also instrumental in the development of a sense of religious identity. Classes in religious instruction were held at times convenient to those in need (that is, children) and were combined with recreational activities, thus creating the easy and familiar environment that made religious practice normal, natural, desirable, and even fun. This also served to bind the children together, fostering a group dynamic that propagated religious attitudes as the accepted norm and ostracized non-participants. Thus children became very familiar with the dictates of their religion and actively and willingly met their parents' expectations.

In contrast, in Ontario society, few temples and mosques exist, and those that do are not conveniently near centres of Indo-Caribbean population. For example, the Rhodes Avenue mosque is in a Pakistani neighbourhood, and the Tablique Jamat is in a Greek district. Muslims and Hindus from every country of the world participate in the activities of their mosques and temples; and in many cases can afford to choose their location. But West Indians are unable, for the most part, to claim this honour.

The cosmopolitan diaspora in Ontario has provided a unique reunion of Indians whose ancestors migrated from the subcontinent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with those who have immigrated directly from India during the last thirty years. While they all share a common source culture, distance and generations of living in another society have produced inevitable differences. Language-the most vulnerable legacy-is often lost. In Toronto, prayers and sermons are often in Indian languages not understood by Indo-Caribbeans. This also serves to alienate them from their organized religious practices, as well as leading to the formation of cliques of people who speak the same language.

In Guyana Indo-Guyanese students generally achieved high academic standards. It was common to have acquired at least four to six "O levels," which is equivalent to Grade 13 in Ontario; and more than half of the young people proceeded to obtain education over and above this. In fact, a surprisingly high proportion attended universities, such as the University of Guyana or the University of Cuba and large numbers attended universities or received training in England and North America, acquiring qualifications in many fields ranging from medicine, law, and accounting to naturopathy, dance, and butchering, among others.

In Canada, on the other hand, a land having abundantly more educational facilities, there has been a significant decline in the number of Indo-Guyanese graduates. The lack of financial resources, the inability to attract support from an "old boys' network," the discomfort and unease produced by the need to identify with alien heroes and an alien history have reduced the enthusiasm for education. In any case, because of the traditional commitment to higher education and continuing parental pressure, the percentage of students from the Indo Guyanese Canadian community that attends university has remained high, compared with the Canadian average.

Although racial tension and pessimism regarding future opportunities stimulated a flow of Indo-Guyanese emigration, jobs in Guyana remain reasonably abundant for newly-returned qualified professionals. They find gainful employment either in private practice or in groups of their peers older than they who often knew them before they graduated. For those without university degrees, the main options were business, clerical, technical positions, and apprentice ships with room for advancement in line with their qualifications that would provide enough income to support them and their families. There were many opportunities for finding such employment since one always had a friend, relative, or in-law who either had or knew of a suitable position. Others managed to create lucrative businesses that ranged from rice, animal, or sugar cane farms, to extensive lumber mills, haberdashery, dry-goods stores, large furniture emporiums, and textile mills. In fact, the Indian population's businesses had grown to the point that they played a significant role in determining the country's economic development and progress.

In Ontario, on the other hand, Indo-Caribbeans are often underemployed and underpaid and have great difficulty in obtaining upper middle-management positions in the private sector. In the public sector, they are under-represented in numbers. In addition, there are numerous doctors who have worked not only in the Caribbean but also in England and Scotland and have completed postgraduate work. In Ontario, however, they are banned from practice unless they are able to obtain an internship, which are heavily competed for and few in number. Similarly, lawyers who have defended hundreds of cases are unable to practise unless they return to university and requalify. It is exceedingly difficult for a successful forty-five-year-old lawyer highly qualified in at least two countries, with a family to support, to · consider returning to school to complete education he already possesses. It is even more frustrating for him, having burned his bridges by immigrating, to consider working as a clerk or security guard; yet many are forced to do just that because they lack Canadian experience.

In Guyana, the Indian migrants became such a significant force that they managed to be the founders of the first trade union. The Manpower Association was founded in 1953 to champion the cause of the sugar workers. It also worked toward furthering the rights of the bauxite workers. The Indo-Guyanese were also fortunate to have the first Indian prime minister in Dr. Cheddi Jagan, who not only won the elections against vigorous opposition but also spearheaded the movement towards independence-a move that could only be achieved by the active participation of the Indo-Guyanese people.

In Toronto, Indo-Caribbean natives have not achieved as much in the political realm. However, it must be remembered that they are still relative newcomers, the bulk of whom only began arriving in the last twenty to twenty-five years. Nevertheless, the loss of political participation and influence is perceived as severely debilitating to many.

The Guyanese of Indian descent who uprooted their lives and transplanted themselves in the West Indies as migrant labourers, losing their roots but certainly not their culture or their courage, became in a mere hundred years a political and economic force to be reckoned with and developed a social system that maintained individuals as part of the collective whole. The second migration to Canada has reproduced the old challenges, the old struggles, and the necessity to re-establish themselves in a new and alien society.

In the last twenty-five years there has been a rapid increase in the Indian population of Caribbean extraction in Toronto. Initially, when they arrived, they were fairly well treated because they occupied the menial jobs that no one else wanted. However, as they were given the opportunity to perform tasks at higher levels, in competition with their Canadian counterparts, they have faced new challenges. Despite the incredible odds, the Indo-Caribbean family has thrived, and there are members of the community who have sought office in federal elections. There are members who are professors, doctors are becoming recertified, and many lawyers are now available. As our community has continued to grow, we have once again stretched our boundaries to surpass our psychological mindsets and have once again realized that we are our own most valuable resource, and that we exist not only to support our community, but also to regenerate our support systems to provide whatever is required to achieve our potential as a unified group. This recognition should grant us the freedom we desire; the freedom to realize that any and all issues affecting our community are ones which we have the opportunity to choose and solve. As soon as we recognize what it is, we will no longer empower others to control our destiny.

The challenge before us is to integrate our renewed Indian identity into the mainstream of Canadian multicultural life.

Bruce Ally is a consulting psychotherapist practising in Toronto.

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