The fact that there is a strong connection between Jamaica and Canada might sound alien to some of us. It belongs to that tradition of exotic blends that, at first sight, don’t seem to make much sense – I’m thinking about the large community of Chinese in Cuba or Taiwanese people in the Canary Islands, just to name a couple of examples.
But the links between Jamaica and Canada can be traced back to the end of the 18th Century – at cultural, economical and political levels – and they have made a considerable impact on both sides over all these years.
As part of the celebrations for Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence (1962 – 2012), a book has been launched to document and highlight the contributions and achievements of Canadians of Jamaican heritage.
As Kamala-Jean Gopie puts it, the aim of Jamaicans in Canada: When Ackee Meets Codfish is to “record and share the impact of Jamaicans in Canada over the centuries”.
Gopie, a Jamaican-Canadian herself, has lived in Canada since 1963 working as an educator, community volunteer, refugee judge and Human Rights Commissioner in Ontario. As the publication media spokesperson of Jamaicans in Canada , she has talked to Kenwood Travel about this celebratory book which features profiles of 250 Jamaican-Canadians including doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, politicians and athletes. “They are Canadians of Jamaican ancestry and heritage from all across the country,” she says.
Among the people featured in the book we can find people like the Olympic champion sprinter Donovan Bailey. What about if she had to pick up someone from the lot? “There are many inspirational people profiled. I knew or know some of them personally, e.g. Rosemary Brown [the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to a Canadian provincial legislature],” Gopie says.
To try to find out why is there a bond between the two countries is like starting to pull a thread of data that never ends. For instance, there were “historical connections on trade and commerce – codfish traded for run and molasses in 1795.” says Gopie. Also around that time there was another extraordinary situation: when the British expelled or exiled the Maroons who had rebelled against them in Jamaica to Nova Scotia, Canada.
Gopie continues with interesting facts like that the first banks in Jamaica were for the most part Canadian, including the Royal Bank of Canada, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Bank of Nova Scotia – which had a branch in Kingston before there were any in Toronto.
When Canada became a nation in 1867, the second wife of its first prime minister, Sarah Agnes McDonald, was Jamaican. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There has been interaction at every level: “One of the largest donations ever made to a Canadian University was made in the 1800s by a Jamaican. In the arts, academe and athletics, Jamaican-Canadians have more than held their own.”
In more recent times, the large exodus for Canada took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, due to major changes in Canada’s immigration policy. According to Gopie “the agitation of Jamaicans here played a role in making the change happen.” She also believes that Jamaica becoming independent and a member of the Commonwealth were significant factors.
When asked if Canada has changed its attitudes towards Jamaicans in the last 50 years, Gopie says that she cannot answer to this, that the question requires a further discussion.
But what is clear is that Jamaicans in Canada: When Ackee Meets Codfish is intended to be a powerful tool to tackle any possible misconception about Jamaicans. “My hope is that the book will provide a more balanced portrayal of Jamaicans in Canada to counteract the image presented in news headlines about the criminal activities of ‘young punks’.”
“We have a story to tell of immigration, adaptation, settlement, integration and contribution and it becomes our duty and responsibility to record for the benefit of our children and the wider Canadian public.” she adds.
Here is the story then of people who have helped to build up another country which they now consider their own.
Just before she finishes, Gopie tells us about her birthland. She says that the physical beauty of the Caribbean island is breathtaking in parts – from mountains to plains or beaches. But also that “Jamaica is a country of extremes – the rich live extremely well and the poor, of which there are many, barely survive. The people are adaptable and have a strong sense of self.”
If you want to discover this country of contrasts for yourself, Kenwood Travel can take you to Jamaica.