Caribbean Canadians

Canadians of Caribbean origin belong to one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada. A group of 556 Jamaicans arrived in Canada in 1796 after an unsuccessful British attempt to enslave them in Jamaica (see Black Canadians), but early contact between Canada and West Indians were few.

Caribana is a celebration of the culture of the West Indians (Corel Professional Photos).

The Caribbean is an economically and culturally diverse group of 27 countries and territories including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. In the 2006 census, 578,695 Canadians reported that they originated from the Caribbean, and the overwhelming majority of these people have immigrated to Canada since the 1970s.

Canadians of Caribbean origin belong to one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada. A group of 556 Jamaicans arrived in Canada in 1796 after an unsuccessful British attempt to enslave them in Jamaica (see Black Canadians), but early contact between Canada and West Indians were few. Between 1800 and 1920 a small number of Jamaicans and Barbadians immigrated as labourers to work in the Cape Breton and Sydney mines, but from 1920 until the early 1960s immigration was virtually nonexistent. Immigration from the Caribbean really began in the 1960s, and by 1973 accounted for almost 13 per cent of all immigration to Canada.

There have been three major periods of immigration from the Caribbean. From 1900 to 1960, Canada accepted about 21,500 immigrants from Caribbean countries, only 33 per cent of whom were placed under the ethnic-origin heading of "Black." The slight increase in immigration from 1945 to 1960 corresponded with postwar economic expansion and the West Indian Domestic Scheme (1955–60) which was established, almost exclusively, for the immigration of women from Jamaica and Barbados who immigrated as domestic workers. The second period, from 1960 to 1971, corresponded with the "liberalization" of the Canadian Immigration Act. During this period Canada accepted about 64,000 people from the Caribbean.

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. The last period, which began in the early 1970s, coincided with the economic recession. Except for 1973 and 1974 (unusual years because of the Addressment of Status Program that helped many persons regularize their status), immigration from the Caribbean declined. Caribbean immigration fell from 10 per cent of total immigration in 1975 to six per cent in 1979 and remained at six per cent until 1996. Before 1960, most immigrants came from the British colonies, especially from Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Bermuda.

The population of Canadians of Caribbean origin has grown more quickly than the Canadian population as a whole. Between 1996 and 2001, the Canadian population grew by four per cent but the Canadian-Caribbean population rose by 11 per cent. Caribbean-Canadians are concentrated overwhelmingly in the major urban centres of Québec and Ontario; in 2001, 91 per cent of Caribbean-Canadians lived in one of these two provinces. Between 1973 and 1980, 96 per cent of Haitian immigrants to Canada settled in Québec, and in 2001, 90 per cent of Haitians lived in Québec, eight per cent in Ontario, and one per cent in each of British Columbia and Alberta. At that time, most Haitians in Québec lived in Montréal (83 per cent).

In 2006, the largest populations of Canadians of Caribbean origin were from Jamaica (231,110), followed by those from Haiti (102,430), Guyana (61,085) and Trinidad and Tobago (58,415).

Economic Life

From the early 1900s, Caribbean immigrants contributed to Canada's economic life by providing cheap labour, primarily on farms and in mines and factories. They also worked as mechanics and domestics or as waiters, porters and clerks. In the 1960s, thousands of skilled workers came to enter a burgeoning job market, particularly in the areas of education, health services and office work. Between 1962 and 1966, almost 33 per cent of immigrants sought work in the professional and technical categories. Because of the savings in labour-training costs and the productivity of the new arrivals, Canada was one of the beneficiaries of this developing world "brain drain."

In the late 1970s, there was a marked change in immigration eligibility categories (fewer independents, more sponsored applicants) and in labour qualifications (education and training). At the same time, employers continued to hire temporary workers in agriculture and in the services sector. Originally, Caribbean immigrants included a minority of family entrepreneurs and highly educated and qualified professionals who formed a small, separate bourgeoisie, and a majority of taxi drivers, factory workers, building superintendents and domestics whose working conditions were unstable and difficult. Today, Caribbean-Canadians are found in every occupational category.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provides development assistance to countries in the Caribbean region. In 2006, trade between Canada and Caribbean countries exceeded $1.8 billion, and in 2007 the federal government began free trade negotiations between Canada and CARICOM, which includes representatives from Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Social and Cultural Life

The Caribbean community is not homogeneous. Class distinctions cut across regional differences which stem as much from the identity of the European countries that divided the West Indies in previous centuries as from each island's individual history. The principal division, however, is linguistic. Haitians moved en masse to Québec (Montréal), whereas anglophone West Indians chose Ontario (Toronto). Where the two groups coexist, as in Montréal, they have relatively little contact with each other. Where the language is the same, other differences come into play, e.g., religion and social class.

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; the majority of French-speaking people from the Caribbean are from Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe; and Spanish speakers are from Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The mother tongue of most Caribbean-Canadians is one of Canada's official languages, and only three per cent speak a non-official language in their home.

Caribbean-Canadians have fought a number of battles in Canada over school issues including language barriers. Many associations have instituted transition programs to deal with the problems experienced by visible minority students by adapting various school programs. These programs, such as courses in Creole, were established in Montréal for Haitian immigrants, to give children a better knowledge of their origins and to counter prejudice in Canadian society. Montréal has become one of the main publishing centres for Haitian literature, which deals with both memories of home and the difficulties of immigrant life. Haitian painting and sculpture have also appeared in Québec.

In the various Caribbean communities the nuclear family is part of an extended family group spread over several major North American cities, and ties are often maintained with the country of origin. Aside from the family, Christian churches play an important role both in welcoming new arrivals and in helping persons in difficulty. The majority of Canadians of Caribbean origin report belonging to Christian religions. The 2001 census reported differences among the ethnic groups, for example, of the people who described their origins as Caribbean, 29 per cent were Catholic; however, a much larger proportion of Haitians were Catholic (59 per cent).

Jamaican immigrants introduced Rastafarianism to Canada. Originally (1933) a messianic movement in which Haile Selassie (who before he became emperor was called Ras Tafari) was believed to be the god of the blacks who came to overthrow the white world (Babylon), Rastafarianism has since had influence on Jamaican-Canadian society. 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. Trinidadians introduced calypso and the carnival.

There are several annual festivals held throughout Canada that celebrate Caribbean culture, such as Caribbean Days in Vancouver, Carifête in Montréal, Cariwest in Edmonton, Carifest in Calgary, and one of the largest festivals, Toronto's Caribana. Unlike the celebrations held prior to Lent in the Christian calendar, the festivals are generally held in the heat of summer.


The political battles of the 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. Anglophone Caribbean-Canadians have fought through racial discrimination that barred black workers from obtaining jobs on the railway, and 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. The National Congress of Black Women, a more recent organization, includes anglophone and francophone women from Canada, Caribbean nations, and other countries.

To defend the interests of blacks 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 2 world wars, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican and one of the great black American leaders, 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. In 2002, 41 per cent of recent immigrants of Caribbean origin reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination that they attributed to their ethnicity, skin colour, race, religion, language or accent during the first 5 years after arriving 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 US, the national liberation struggles throughout the world and the incident at Sir George Williams University (Concordia University), Montréal, in 1968–69, in which several black students and other student supporters, protesting against the racist grading system of a professor, occupied and damaged the school's computer lab. The Black United Front was founded in Nova Scotia.

Haitian organizations in Québec were active in the fight against the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the deportation of Haitians in 1974 and 1979, and established information, emergency, literacy and other services. Haitians also exerted enough pressure on the government that political refugee status has been given more freely to Haitian and Latin American immigrants.

An Ethnic Diversity Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2002 reported that 82 per cent of people with Caribbean origins and 70 per cent of people of Haitian origin living in Canada felt a strong sense of belonging in Canada, and they also reported a strong connection to their cultural group. The study also found that 68 per cent of people of Caribbean origin and 76 per cent of Jamaicans as well as 82 per cent of Haitians, regardless of the number of generations that had been born in Canada, highly rated the importance of their ancestry, customs and traditions.

Further Reading

  • K. Levitt, Canada-West Indies Economic Relations (1967) and The Canadian Family Tree (1979); R. Winks, The Blacks in Canada (1971); Micheline Labelle, Serge Larose and Victor Piché, "Politique d'immigration et immigration en provenance de la Caraibe anglophone au Canada et au Québec," Canadian Ethnic Studies XV no. 2 (1983).

External Links