Caribbean Canadians | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Caribbean Canadians

People from the Caribbean region began to settle in Canada in the late 18th century (see Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia and Black Canadians). In the 2016 census, 749,155 Canadians reported that they originated from the Caribbean, and most have immigrated to Canada since the 1970s.  

Caribana (Toronto Caribbean Carnival)
Participants at annual Caribana Parade July 30, 2011 in Toronto.

The Caribbean Region

The Caribbean region is made up of a diverse group of countries, and is divided into three physiographic divisions: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antiles and some isolated islands.

The Greater Antilles include Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the Lesser Antilles include the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, and Grenada. Lastly, the isolated islands of the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire are also included.

Although Bermuda and Guyana are not physiographically part of the Caribbean, they have historical and cultural ties with the other islands and are often included in definitions of the region. 

Today, there are many different languages spoken across the various islands, including English, Spanish and French, as well as Haitian Creole and Jamaican Creole.

History of Caribbean Immigration to Canada

In 1796, between 550 to 600 Maroon men and women arrived in HalifaxNova Scotia after an unsuccessful British attempt to enslave them in Jamaica. Between 1800 and 1920, a small number of Jamaicans and Barbadians immigrated as labourers to work in the Cape Breton and Sydney mines. (See History of Labour Migration to Canada.) Before 1960, the few immigrants who did arrive from the Caribbean region came from the British colonies, especially Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Bermuda.

Immigration from the Caribbean really began in the 1960s and 70s. Of the 749,155 Canadians reported to have Caribbean origins in the 2016 census, the vast majority immigrated to Canada after the multiculturalism policy was initiated in 1971 by then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

There have been three major immigration cohorts from the Caribbean to Canada.

The first cohort was between 1900 to 1960. During this period, Canada accepted about 21,500 immigrants from Caribbean countries. The slight increase in immigration from 1945 to 1960 corresponded with postwar economic expansion and the West Indian Domestic Scheme (1955–67) which was established, almost exclusively, for the immigration of women from Jamaica and Barbados who immigrated as domestic workers. Women like Jean Augustine, the first Black female MP and Cabinet minister, entered Canada through this scheme.

The second cohort, from 1960 to 1971, coincided with the "liberalization" of the Canadian Immigration Act. During this period Canada accepted about 64,000 people from the Caribbean. In 1962, Canada introduced new immigration regulations (1962 Immigration Act), which reduced the emphasis of people migrating to Canada based on the colour of their skin or their nationality and increased the emphasis on their education and skills. In 1967, Canada implemented the points system. This allowed people to immigrate to Canada from all over the world. Since the 1970s, Canada saw increased migration as part of an international movement to slow European emigration, and Canada began to depend increasingly on labour from the developing nations. (See Immigration Policy in Canada.)

The third cohort, which began in the early 1970s, coincided with an economic recession. Except for 1973 and 1974 (unusual years because of the Addressment of Status Program that helped many people regularize their status), immigration from the Caribbean declined. 1973 saw the highest number of Caribbean migrations to Canada with approximately 20,000 persons from Caribbean countries admitted into the country. In 1974, 23,885 immigrants were from Caribbean countries. However, by the mid to late 1970s, an economic recession slowed down Caribbean migration to Canada. Caribbean immigration fell from 10 per cent of total immigration in 1975 to six per cent in 1979. It remained at six per cent until 1996.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Canadian population grew by four per cent, whereas the population of Caribbean Canadians grew more quickly and rose by 11 per cent. Most Caribbean Canadians live in the more populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec and in major urban city hubs such as Toronto and Montreal.

The majority of Caribbean immigrants to Canada speak at least one of Canada's official languages. People from Antigua, Grenada, Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, St Lucia, Virgin Islands, St Kitts-Nevis, Dominica, and St Vincent generally speak English. Meanwhile, the majority of French-speaking people from the Caribbean are from Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Spanish speakers are typically from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In many cases, language plays a role in settlement decisions for immigrants from this region. For example, French-speaking Haitians have traditionally settled in Quebec (Montreal), whereas English-speaking West Indians have chosen Ontario (Toronto). (See French Language in Canada; Canadian English.)

Social and Cultural Life

Jamaican immigrants introduced Rastafarianism to Canada. Jamaicans also introduced reggae music, which originated in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. A blend of African musical traditions and rhythm and blues, reggae was born during the 1960s and spread to England and America. People from Trinidad and Tobago introduced carnival, calypso music, and soca music, which is a genre of music that grew out of a marginalized subculture in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s. Soca blends calypso with chutney, cadence, funk and soul (see also Caribbean Music in Canada).

There are several annual festivals held throughout Canada that celebrate Caribbean culture. These include the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, Cariwest in Edmonton, Caribbean Days in North Vancouver, Carifest in Calgary, Carifiesta in Montreal, Durham Caribbean Festival, Jerkfest in Toronto, Scarborough AfroCarib Fest, Irie Music Festival in Mississauga and the Caribbean Tales International Film Festival in Toronto. These festivals are generally held in the spring or summer, but various organizations and events also highlight all Canadian Black History (including Caribbean history) during the winter months (see Celebrating Black History Month in Canada).

The 2018 Carifiesta parade in Montreal (published by The Montreal Gazette)

Caribbean Canadians also have a presence in media. Some examples of radio stations that highlight the culture of Caribbean Canadians include: G 98.7, Carib101 Radio, CJTR Regina, CIUT Radio, Radio Haiti on News, and Voix Tropicale FM. Some television stations that celebrate Caribbean culture in Canada are: Afroglobal Television, Caribbean Vibrations, and WIN Caribbean. Some newspapers that bring recognition to Caribbean culture in Canada include: Toronto, Caribbean Newspaper, Pride News, Montreal Community Contact and Our Legacy News.

Religious Life

Religion is an important part of many Caribbean islands and has always played a major role in the settling of Caribbean Canadians. Religion is maintained mostly by those who migrated from the Caribbean directly in comparison to those of Caribbean heritage who were born in Canada. Generation and age play a significant role in the continuation and maintenance of religious patterns amongst Caribbean Canadians.

A large portion of Caribbean Canadians come from a Christian background (Roman CatholicProtestantAnglicanPentecostalSeventh Day Adventist), with some also following the religions of Rastafari and Islam.

Based on the 2011 Statistics Canada household survey, 265,035 out of a total 3,669,430 immigrants in Canada identify as Christian and are from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti. A small number of Caribbean Canadians, 36,120, from the islands of Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti said they had no religious affiliation. Another 15,645 Caribbean Canadians from the islands of Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti stated that they are Muslim and practice Islam.

Political Life

The political battles of Caribbean people in Canada have been waged over-improving working conditions, pervasive racism in employment, education and accommodation, the right to immigrate and the right to participate in the political life of their mother country and of Canada. English-speaking Caribbean Canadians have fought through racial discrimination that barred Black workers from obtaining jobs on the railway. One of their first successes was establishing the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. Today, this labour organization is affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (see Sleeping Car Porters in Canada).

Since the early 20th century, Caribbean-Canadians have fought on behalf of women's issues through the Coloured Women's Club (founded in 1902). The Congress of Black Women of Canada, a more recent organization, includes English and French-speaking women from Canada, Caribbean nations and other countries.

To defend the interests of Black people and to fight racism at various levels, a number of organizations were established, uniting Blacks of Canadian Caribbean origin. One of the original organizations to protect the rights of Black Canadians was the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People, inspired by the large American organization (NAACP). Between the two world wars, the Universal Negro Improvement Association was founded by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican and one of the great Black American leaders. Garvey led a different Black movement advocating a return to Africa and non-integration. This association gave rise to a string of satellite organizations in Canada.

At the end of the 1960s, student and youth organizations mobilized against the existing school system. This movement was influenced by the Black Panther movement in the United States and national liberation struggles throughout the world. The incident at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in 1968–69 also had a significant influence. During the incident, several Black students and other student supporters protested against the racist grading system of a professor. They occupied and damaged the school's computer lab (see The Sir George Williams Affair). It’s also in this broader context that the Black United Front was founded in Nova Scotia.

Haitian organizations in Quebec were active in the fight against the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the deportation of Haitians in 1974 and 1979. They established information, emergency, literacy and other services. Haitians also exerted pressure on the government to ensure political refugee status was given more freely to Haitian and Latin American immigrants. (See Canadian Refugee Policy.)

Other organizations dedicated to the interests and needs of Caribbean Canadians have been created over the years. They include the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), Thornhill African Caribbean Canadian Association (TACCA), Council of Caribbean Associations Canada, Jamaican Canadian Association, Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ontario, and the Caribbean Community Council of Calgary. Black Lives Matter Canada is an organization in Canada that represents Black Canadians in the fight against inequality, police brutality, discrimination and systemic racism.

International Relations between Canada and the Caribbean Region

Canada has a positive relationship with the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Canada and the Caribbean work in partnership around areas such as investment and tourism, as well as social, economic and security issues.

Notable Canadians of Caribbean Origin

Notable Canadians of Caribbean origin include Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes; retired sprinter and Olympic gold medalist Donovan Bailey; retired track and field athlete and Olympic gold medalist Bruny Surin; former lieutenant-governor of Ontario Lincoln Alexander; first Black and longest-serving senator Anne Cools; former Governor General Michäelle Jean, and; author, historian and poet Afua Cooper.

Donovan Bailey 1996
Canada's Donovan Bailey celebrates the gold medal he won for the men's 100m at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.

This episode looks at early Caribbean migration to Canada and reveal which islands could have become Canadian provinces. Leah and Falen also dive into the history of Black railway porters and how they and their wives made Winnipeg a hub of labour activism in Canada.

Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Further Reading

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