Jamaicans in Toronto

By: Jean Forde

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 140-142
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Today, the Jamaican presence in Toronto is no longer a token few as in the fifties. The numbers have grown to a sizeable minority with a distinct culture, organised and vocal, which has not hesitated to lobby government institutions for fair and equal treatment. In Jamaica, community and family provide strong support systems in times of crisis. To provide this direct and personal assistance to immigrants, Jamaicans in Toronto formed their own ethnic association. The Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) was created in 1962 on the occasion of Jamaica's independence from Britain. Filled with patriotic pride, a small group of about twenty, got together to organise a celebration of the event. The success of this venture led to a decision that an on-going association could help with immigrant concerns and adaptation problems, as well as host social and cultural events.

Current president, Roy Williams, was a founding member, and he remembers the early days when the association acted as a voice for the immigrants, protesting and lobbying against discrimination in housing, rental accommodation, employment, immigration bias and police harassment of Blacks. Stereotyping and prejudice were so ingrained, problems abounded, and the association always had a cause to fight. Since the JCA predates the Ontario Human Rights Commission and most of the present anti-discrimination laws, its early activities, fighting against injustice, had great salience. In the Toronto of the eighties government agencies act as watchdogs though with some occasional prodding from the community's spokesmen. The Ontario government responded well to the initiatives of the association, and even the police force is bending to the winds of change (now a multiracial force, the old height and weight requirements for recruits-used to exclude non-whites-no longer apply).

Presently, the JCA is as busy as ever but the emphasis has changed. Difficulties of adjustment are not experienced collectively now, but on an individual basis. The easing of the immigration laws has resulted in the arrival of larger numbers of immigrants with a broad spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds. Adjustment problems to a different culture and different educational standards continue, however, to require help from the association, particularly for the one-parent families. These are headed, for the most part, by women who must be away from the home earning a living. Left unsupervised for long periods, without enough discipline and guidance, the one-parent child often becomes a community problem. The JCA is currently engaged in counselling individuals and working with young people and teachers in the schools, particularly in the Toronto and North York Boards of Education. English as a second language is now taught to Jamaicans who speak only dialect, and the Jamaican dialect is recognised for what it is-not poor English, but a dialect beloved by Jamaicans, which few non-Jamaicans can understand.

A recent high point for the JCA was a one-day conference at the Holiday Inn in downtown Toronto, in January 1982. Out of that has come the Council of Jamaicans in Ontario to which Jamaican organisations each send representatives. The celebration of Jamaica's Independence Day is still the major community social event for the association, which is also currently raising funds to build its own cultural centre.

While Jamaicans of all classes and races are present in Toronto, the predominant group is drawn from the Black working class, forced to emigrate in search of a better life. Most have found work and comparative prosperity, but remain cultural outsiders, perpetuating and transplanting the island's culture in a Canadian environment. Most Jamaicans retain a strong attachment to their distinctive food, sports, music and dialect. Jamaican culture is alive and well in Toronto and can be maintained without much difficulty. Small grocery stores, restaurants, record shops, ethnic newspapers, radio programs and visiting politicians from the island all cater to the illusion that Jamaica hasn't been left too far behind. Even large food chains now stock island food such as plantains and canned ackees, and the popular pattie is sold everywhere and may one day rival the hamburger as a quick meaty snack.

Cricket, a sport dear to the heart of every true West Indian, could not be left behind. Cricket clubs have sprung up in Toronto, and as soon as the weather permits, the sport comes to life. Dominoes, another popular game, can be played any time of year and has been organised by John Brooks into a very active and competitive pursuit. Beginning with a Guinness-sponsored team which challenged and beat its counterpart in Jamaica, John Brooks has now set up the National Domino League of Canada, which organises teams and tournaments throughout the country.

Music is a vital necessity for the well-being of the Jamaican psyche. Jamaicans live for their music and look forward with anticipation to weekend parties which often are non-stop night-till-dawn dancing marathons. Jamaican musicians have been enormously creative and innovative over the years, and reggae, the latest product, has gained world-wide attention and helped to confirm a sense of national identity. While its pulsating beat certainly captivates the ear and entices the feet to dance, its appeal lies partly in the fact that the music speaks for the poor. It is Third World protest music turned popular music; slum music which has become chic.

For the immigrants from the island, a strong patriotic bond with Jamaica seems to last forever. They worry about the island's politics and concern themselves with its welfare-its economic woes and their social repercussions. Several organisations provide assistance to the island. The Jamaica Bellevue and General Hospital Fund lobby for donations of medical equipment and host dances to raise funds. The Jamaica Self-Help Organization (with headquarters in Peterborough) was set up to help alleviate poverty on the island. Any funds raised are matched by CIDA and used to build schools, provide salaries for teachers and lunches for children in deprived areas of the island, assist with the care of senior citizens and other worthwhile projects.

Jamaicans share a common heritage and culture with West Indians from the former British islands, and while this article focuses on Jamaicans in Toronto, it is not intended to imply any uniqueness or distinction between them and their Caribbean relatives. In a very real sense when one speaks for one group, one speaks for all.

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