West Indian Domestic Scheme: Nurturing a Nation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


West Indian Domestic Scheme: Nurturing a Nation

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

From 1955 to 1967, Canada ran a recruitment initiative known as the West Indian Domestic Scheme. Young women from English-speaking Caribbean countries could come to Canada as domestic workers. These women were crucial to the economic and cultural growth of the country, and the Canadian idea of multiculturalism was built, in part, on the backs of these women.

In this episode, Eva Bailey, mother of host Garvia Bailey, remembers her experience coming to Canada shortly after the scheme. We also speak with associate professor Karen Flynn, who explores the feminist revolution as well as the social mobility this immigration scheme encouraged.

Garvia Bailey: My parents make a good team. It’s what my mom has always thought. From the moment she laid eyes on my dad as a teenager, she liked him. He was tending his goats and cows, and he looked capable, and she liked that. So, she pursued him, persuaded him that they would be better as one unit. A family. A team. Many years later as a young mom, Eva, my mom, would leave us behind, me and my 2 brothers and sister in Jamaica, to set the table for a new life for us in Canada. She was going to take one for the team.

You see, Canada had been calling on women like my mother for years, beckoning them to come and settle in as domestic workers - you know, taking care of kids, housekeeping - that kind of work. It was called The West Indian Domestic Scheme and it was an organized recruitment initiative that ran from 1955 to 1967. The scheme was set up between the Canadian government and governments from the English-speaking Caribbean.

My mom heard all about it in her small Jamaican village and hoped one day to be one of the young women off to what Jamaicans called, ‘foreign’. The idea was almost like a dream, it was so simple. Move to Canada. Work there. Send money back home and maybe even put down some roots. But what was the scheme all about? Who was benefiting from it? How did these thousands of Black women from the Caribbean get along in Canada in the 1950s and 60s once they arrived? And what is the legacy of the Domestic Scheme? Well for starters, there’s me. And my family. Let me tell you about us.  

This is Strong and Free, a Historica Canada podcast. Because Black history is Canadian history. My name is Garvia Bailey.

I want to tell you my story. But I’m also going to lean on some deep research by someone who’s literally written the book on this topic. 

Karen Flynn: So, my name is Karen Flynn and I study, what I generally say to folks when they ask, Black Canada, but more specifically, I focus on Black women and labour. 

GB: As a Black woman herself, Karen’s interest on this topic was both academic and personal. 

KF: While I was pursuing my master's degree at the University of Windsor, there was a moment that I recognized that I didn't know enough about Black people in Canada. Most of my knowledge at the time, particularly when I was pursuing this master's degree, was a lot of the emphasis was on African American women, African American people, a lot of my… just the studies in general was about African Americans. And I remember saying to Christina Simmons, who was… who supervised my master's degree at the time, just wondering what's going on with Black people in Canada. And I remember her saying specifically to me, “if you want that history, you're going to have to be the one to write it.” And that's always stayed in my mind.  

GB: Karen Flynn has devoted her professional life to combing through archives and records, researching and collecting the stories of Black Caribbean women who came to Canada to work.  

When I started looking into the West Indian Domestic Scheme, a government policy that invited thousands of women from the West Indies to settle in Canada starting in 1955, I knew I had to talk to Karen Flynn. 

And I also had to talk to my mom, Eva Bailey.  

Eva Bailey: I came here the end of 73, September. 

GB: Or is it the end of 72, September? 

EB: End of 72?

GB: Yes. End of 72. 

GB: I’m at my parents’ house in small-town Ontario trying to figure out the year my mom came to Canada. We’re sitting at the kitchen table while my dad listens to the radio in the other room.  

EB: And what year you say you came?

GB: 73, end of like late 73. 

EB: August.  

GB: I remember because I know I arrived in Canada when I was two and a half. I was very cute.  

EB: I remember that. I think it was 17th of August.  

GB: Is that it?  

EB: I think so.  

GB: I know you came here and set the table. 

GB: My mom wasn’t part of the West Indian Domestic Scheme - at least not officially. But she came on the wave of immigration created by the scheme and it’s because of the scheme that our family is celebrating close to 50 years in Canada. I wouldn’t be here without the opening up of this country to admit workers like my mom.  

There were women from Jamaica, like my mother, Trinidad, Guyana, the Leeward and Windward Islands, and Barbados. They took the opportunity presented to them through the Domestic Scheme and the immigration policy overhaul of 1967. That’s when Canada took a good look at its old system and came to the conclusion that it was discriminatory. The new system would be more objective; race, ethnicity, or nation of origin would not play a role in the selection.  

What people maybe didn’t realize at the time is that the Caribbean women who were immigrating under the Domestic Scheme were playing a huge role in supporting a feminist revolution in places like Britain and Canada. Think about it; households don’t run themselves; children don’t raise themselves. But in the 50s white women in Canada were starting to work outside the home, creating a need for domestic labour that was filled by Black women of Commonwealth countries, recruited by Canada’s labour and immigration policy. Their presence was crucial to the economic and cultural growth of the countries. And the Canadian idea of multiculturalism was built, in part, on the backs of these women. 

KF: So basically, it started in 1955. And there was a quota system.  

GB: And yes, it was an actual quota.  

KF: The Canadian manpower had relationships with Caribbean governments, if you will. 

GB: In the first year, 100 women, mostly from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad arrived in Canada. Each year after that, 280 more Caribbean women were added. 

KF: I have to say this was really important, in the sense that it moved away, it started to slowly move away from the exclusionary racist policies that Canada had in terms of the migration of Black people, Caribbean people to Canada. So, it's really instrumental. I don't know that people realized how, by the end of this scheme, 3,000 women had migrated to Canada under this scheme.  

GB: This was a time of major social change in Canada. And we are talking about women and work, so what about feminism at this time? 

KF: By the 1950s, white middle class women were moving into the world of work in unprecedented numbers. They’re all moving into teaching and nursing and other clerical work. And so, the domestic workers really made it possible for these women to be able to move out and move into the world of paid work. So yeah, so we have this women’s movement, and… and this emphasis on, your liberation is really through your work, through working in the public sphere. You needed someone to assume the responsibilities that you normally would if you were doing your own household work and caring for your children. So, when these women leave their households, that work- that reproductive labour - being there for the child, socializing the child, caring for the child, or children, in a lot of cases, they, Caribbean domestic workers are contributing, even if inadvertently, to this Canadian nation building enterprise. 

GB: A nation building enterprise. The women who came from the Caribbean to work were helping to build this nation. When I sat down to talk to my mom about her journey to Canada, she recalls that as a teenager, she wasn’t thinking about nation-building or feminist revolutions. But she knew that leaving Jamaica and coming to Canada was something to aspire to.

EB: There were these two sisters who used to come to the church and they used to really like me. Oh yeah, they did. They even take me to Bannister. You know where Bannister is? 

GB: I know Bannister.

GB: Bannister is a small village just down a steep road from my mother’s small village, Red Ground in St Catharine’s Parish. That’s where I was born. But in this memory of the two sisters from church, what my mom is saying is that on Sundays, she loved going to Bannister with them. And she loved that free lunch. 

EB: Yeah, well, that's where they live. They would take me down there and feed me. 

GB: The two sisters.

EB: They told me somebody in Canada is sending for them and I should keep it a secret. And within the next two weeks I won't be seeing them to take me for lunch anymore. 

GB: My mom does this thing where she pretends to cry. I think it’s adorable when she does that. 

GB: Were they excited? 

EB: I don't remember if they were excited, but I know that they were happy.

GB: It was something my mom saw in her village all the time in those years between the 50s and into the 60s; young women from her community picking up and going to Canada. A generation of them at church one week and then gone the next…

KF: Your explanation of your own mother all suggest that people often assume that Caribbean people, this idea that we're searching for a better life, right, so somehow the life that you leave wasn't good enough. What I'm suggesting as well, is that people also wanted to travel, they wanted to see…domestic workers wanted to see the world, right? Yes, social mobility, upward social mobility was a factor because as we know, this is the 1950s, we're still talking about the colonial Caribbean here. Most of these countries until 1962 hadn't gained their independence from Britain. So, there's just this inequality that existed on the Caribbean islands, they weren't enough, you had people who were educated, not enough employment. So, no one is denying the fact that upward mobility was a factor that prompted Caribbean domestic workers to come to Canada. They also wanted to advance their education. So, there was never just one reason.

EB: I see this paper fell from somebody and it have kind of like an advertising for recruiting people to Canada. And I was so… I hold this piece of paper. I didn't give it to anybody. I hold on to it. I couldn't wait to get home to send in an application for that thing. 

GB: To come to Canada. 

EB: To come to Canada. 

GB: Oh, so they were advertising it in the paper.  

GB: When my mother is telling me this, she is actually holding her hands to her chest, like she’s holding that piece of paper she held so many years ago. That ad in the paper was the way my mom heard about the West Indian Domestic Scheme.  

According to Karen Flynn, this is one of the many ways that word of the Domestic Scheme got around.

KF: There's multiple ways in which women, young women found out about domestic work in Canada. One, there were those advertisements in in the newspaper, but word of mouth was the biggest, right, way in which in which other people found out about domestic work. So, folks would come to Canada, right, and then they would tell someone else, and somebody would tell someone else. And then another person said, “well, you know, I was talking to my friend, and I found out about this from somebody else. And we're just going to go to the Canadian Embassy, we're just going to go to Canada.”

GB: My mom did apply for the scheme, but she was pregnant at the time and she had heard that there was a list of criteria for being chosen: single female, aged 18-35, 8th grade education, must pass a Canadian medical examination. 

The families, the church, both governments in the West Indies and Canada, they were as serious about this recruitment process as they would be about recruiting for the army.  

Over those years a constant flow of news about the scheme would travel back and forth between the Island nations and Canada. In our family it was my mother’s sister, my auntie Lynette, who came to Canada under the domestic workers program. She was constantly writing letters back and forth with my mom about her new life in Toronto: the cold, the food, the opportunities, the work, the loneliness. 

And even though the Canadian government was aggressively pushing for the workers to come, the decision to come and what was awaiting the women wasn’t always ideal…  

GB: It must have been so hard to leave, though, because you didn't know how long you were going to be gone for, did you?  

EB: No. I know if it wasn't good, I could come back.   

GB: Mm hmm.  

EB: But for the leaving it was hard. It was… it was really hard.

GB: I was just a baby, not even out of diapers yet and my mom was leaving. 

EB: You guys was one of my head topic of everything. I can’t leave them and stuff like that. I say Ed should go first. 

GB: Ed is my dad, my mom’s original teammate.   

EB: Well Lynette write back and “they want women.”  

GB: Well, that's how it was they wanted women to come.  

EB: Yeah, they want women because women would do housework. 

GB: My mom arrived in Canada 5 years after the scheme had officially ended. She came on what’s called a temporary employment visa, a kind of extension of the scheme. The family who had sponsored my mother’s sister years before under the scheme sponsored my mother. Her first job was doing domestic work for them. But soon my mom was able to find a permanent spot with a woman who was going through a divorce and re-entering the workforce.

GB: What was that job? That first... 

EB:  That was a… that was like a house job…with an extremely big house…with three kids!   

GB: And what were you supposed to do?  

EB: I'm supposed to take care of them because she's gone to Montreal on business. And she was in the middle of a divorce.

GB: White people?

EB: Yeah. 

GB: In a big house? Where was it, Rosedale?   

EB: Yonge street somewhere… it was the housing part of Yonge. But it was posh. 

GB: Fancy.  

EB: Fancy. I made a mistake one time and opened a room which - it was all red carpet, red table cover, gold this and set up on the table. Shut back the door, it’s not for me, I won't go in.   

GB: My mom took one look and didn’t go back into that room ever again. 

EB: It was too fancy for me. I wouldn't say about riches, but I, like, I don't go to grocery store, the grocery coming to me, two big box of stuff that I should pack away.  

GB: It was all so different from what my mother knew back home, and then of course she was caring for these 3 kids while her own 4 children were so far away.  

GB: Oh. So they were little these kids? 

EB: Yeah. Yeah. And the other, the girl was eight and the baby was about nine months or something. 

But anyway, John, I decided that I was going to give John a bath. There goes John, “Why do you want to give me a bath?”

“Because Mom says.”

“Okay,” get in the bath and we’re rubbing back and…. They call me Ava.  

GB: They called you Ava?  

EB: Ava. “Every time you come to watch me you wash my white bum. Can I see your Black bum?”   

GB: Oh, no! 

EB: I say, “No, John, you can’t see my Black bum because if you see my Black bum, you will laugh until you die. And your mom wouldn't like that.” I remember that. He says, “Okay.”  

GB: Sure, there was some indignity attached to the job, like the family insisting on calling her Ava when her name is Eva. But overall, she ended up with a good family that treated her well and paid well. That wasn’t always the case for the domestic workers who came over with the scheme.  

KF: You come to Canada, and then you recognize that the job that they said, “Well you’re going to get this much money a month” even though there's a sponsorship letter that tells you’re going to get $200 a month, and then instead of $200, you're getting $100 because your employer is not living up to the contractual agreement. But you have the advice to West Indian women recruited for work in Canada as household help, basically telling these domestic workers, “Try not to… try not to agitate or create any difficulties for your employer.” So, the expectation that they would be making all this money, I think domestic workers came to Canada with these…these ideals and these expectations, and in some, in some cases, were disappointed.  

Many of the domestic workers found themselves in really… a rock and a hard place. And many of the domestic workers were told basically not to complain. We have to try to think about Canada in 1955 and the 1960s. Sometimes we use this kind of 21st century mindset to think back to the 1950s. These women left their families behind – they left their families behind. They came, most of them, as single women without anyone. They’re in communities where they're the only, you know, person of colour, they're working for these families. A lot of times there was really no recourse.  

And they have the pressure, you know the Caribbean government saying, “You are responsible to make this scheme successful. So, the women who were before you, they lived up to these expectations. Who are you going to complain to?" 

GB: And to be clear Canada looked very white back then, both in the suburbs and cities. Seeing Black faces just wasn’t common and wasn’t always welcome. So, these women dealt with overt racism, microaggressions, housing discrimination, among many other issues. Once their one-year contracts were up, many took the government up on the offer to stay as landed immigrants. And many eventually left domestic work, found better jobs, and were able to take classes and get good educations. They created their own communities, cultural clubs, and social support groups. All while supporting families back home.   

KF: And we still do that. It's huge. It is the remittances. 

GB: “Remittances” is a way of saying money that you send to your family back home.  

KF: It's hard to get actual numbers on remittances. But when people migrate, the expectation is whether or not you want to or not, is that you will, that money is never just for you. That you are required and expected to care for the people that you left behind. 

GB: So those remittances, that money being made in Canada was flowing back into the West Indian economy and the Canadian economy was also being propped up by these domestic workers. Everyone seemed to be winning... but what about the women themselves? What did they gain, and under what kind of pressure? 

KF: There is a document. It’s called “Advice to West Indian Women Recruited for Work in Canada’s Household Helps.” And this document, it basically outlined what the expectations are for the domestic workers. It's very fascinating. 

GB: Fascinating indeed. Karen sent me a copy from the University of Toronto Library Archives. 24 pages of specific instructions, from the threatening point 1d) “Remember if you fail, you will let down not only yourself but your country,” to the common sense: 5a) “When you arrive in Canada you should not go outdoors during the cold weather without warm clothing.”  

And under the heading CONDUCT: point b) “If you are rebuked by your employer, you should not be rude or objectionable in explaining your side of the story.”  

Let me circle back around to point 1d) “If you fail you will not only be letting down yourself but your country.”   

KF: But then the document itself were like, “Look, you are like missionaries, you have to abide by these rules, right? And you have to do your part, right.” So, in fact, that they were ambassadors. They were ambassadors to Canada. It's contingent upon each group that came every year to ensure the scheme worked. So, they put these additional responsibility on these women as missionaries, they use the term missionaries. But in fact, I would just say that they're, you know, that they were ambassadors.  

GB: Ambassadors. That’s a lot of responsibility. And you know, the women who arrived in the early wave of the scheme included names like Jean Augustine, the first African Canadian woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons. It also included women who would begin the hard work of immigration reform and easing settlement for other newcomers to Canada. These women were also part of building up organizations such as The Negro Citizenship Association, or NCA, The Universal African Improvement Association, The Jamaican Canadian Association, Domestic Workers United, and INTERCEDE, the International Coalition to End Domestics Exploitation, and many others. These Caribbean women were the workers who formed the backbone of these groups and organizations.  

And here’s another thing; the end of the West Indian Domestic Scheme didn’t mean the end of the need for domestic workers. So, in the 1970s the Canadian government came up with another program. It was called The Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program. The caregivers who came to Canada under THAT program were only issued temporary visas and no promises of permanent residence.  

The risk for exploitation of these women was high under this plan. In fact, according to law professor Audrey Macklin in her paper called, “Foreign Domestic Worker: Surrogate Housewife or Mail Order Servant”, this program positioned these workers as “cheap, exploitable and expendable.”   

So, domestic workers, past and present, started lobbying to change the policy. It’s something that we hear about to this day; Black women, organizing, rallying, shaking up policy, making noise and making change.  

There’s no disputing the fact that Canada did take advantage of these workers. There was exploitation of labour. These women did face intense racism and pushed up against the patriarchy.   

The West Indian Domestic Scheme, like so many of the labour and immigration programs that came before and after, was flawed in many ways but for women like my mom, growing up and seeing her neighbours and friends leave for Canada and create new narratives, new lives, the risks were worth it. The sacrifice was worth it. 

GB: You must be so proud of yourself in a way. I would be proud of - I'm proud of you.   

EB: Well…  

GB: Coming - like that seems like such a brave thing to do.  

EB: Well, it was it -- it was and is a brave thing to do. But the thing is… like lots of what happened to me, like I don't take it and make a grudge. I move forward. 

GB: One of my earliest childhood memories, maybe my very first memory, is reuniting with my mother in Canada after her long absence from our lives. I was a baby, not yet 3 years old. I remember her smelling different from us – from my dad, my older sister, and brothers. I remember not wanting her to hold or kiss me. She was a stranger to me in this cold foreign land. She had been gone for half of my life.  

When I ask my mom about our reunion, she says she remembers it clearly. She remembers me not wanting to kiss her... but doesn’t say much more, which is typical of my mom and dad. They were a team, and they had this opportunity to come to a country, get good jobs, and start contributing to a new community. Hugs and kisses could wait, as hard as that may sound. It’s the same immigrant story I’ve heard time and time again. Your parents get here, and their only goal is to succeed and provide. 

I think about the West Indian Domestic Scheme and the thousands of women who came before, during and after it...and these same reunion scenarios playing out again and again.  

Right now, I see the women who come from the Philippines, from the West Indies, from all over the world to take care of Canadian children and households and elderly parents, and I think of what they are giving up to be here. And I hope that it’s worth it.  

EB: Life is something that if you allow stress and this and that to keep you down, that's what will keep you down. You have to always kind of say, well, looking at the positive thing because where there is 10 negative, there is 20 positive out there waiting for you if you put your heart and mind to it. And that is the thing that really, really keep your 82-year-old mother going. You just got - you just got to do it. Whatever you have to do, you just do it.  

GB: Thanks for listening. 

Strong and Free is produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada. 

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit historicacanada.ca.

This episode was written and produced by me, Garvia Bailey. 

Senior producers are myself along with Hannah Sung. 

Sound design and mix by Gabbie Clarke and David Moreau. 

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out by Josiane Blanc, Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow, and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends. 

Thank you to my mom, Eva Bailey, and to our script consultant, Karen Flynn, associate professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Special thanks to my family, the Baileys. 

The 1959 clip you heard in this episode was produced by The Calvin Company for a McGraw Hill Textbook series in a video called The Problem With Women.

Fact-checking by Amy van den Berg.  

I'm Garvia Bailey, thanks for listening.