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Caribbean (West Indian) Immigration to Alberta

The Immigration Act of 1910 gave the Canadian government great power over selecting who could immigrate. A list of clauses, one of which indicating that “any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character.” (African-American Canadians, 69) allowed the federal government to selectively determine who would be allowed to immigrate to Canada. Provisions such as these allowed the government to accept immigrants from one country while barring them from another.

During the first half of the 20th century, this immigration policy allowed Europeans to immigrate to Canada at the exclusion of virtually every other ethnic group. It also meant that people from different Caribbean nations were all treated the same way: the diversity of Caribbean cultures was disregarded. Although people from the Caribbean represent diverse cultures and heritage, this section will deal with the Caribbean nations as a group, as their immigration history to Canada is much the same.

Although provisions tended to exclude all but those of European descent from immigrating to Canada, there was one exception to the rule. During labour shortages, it was possible to hire people of other ethnicities to perform certain jobs. It was through this exception that many early immigrants from Caribbean nations such as Jamaica and Barbados arrived in Canada. During the First World War, for example, Caribbean immigrants arrived in Nova Scotia to work in the coal mines near Sydney or in the shipyards of Halifax. Over the years, other West Indians immigrated to serve as domestic help. Many used such labour demand exemptions to gain a foothold in Canada. After serving as labourers for a few years, they were free to pursue careers in other fields (e.g., nursing or teaching) and to move to larger centres like Montreal and Toronto.

In the 1960s, Canada’s policies began to change. While many Canadians thought that West Indian immigrants, because of their inability to adapt to the Canadian climate or to overcome language barriers, would not fit into Canada, international opinion was beginning to shift. During the Cold War, Canada hoped to play a role as a broker between the superpowers and the rest of the world. Many in the Canadian government felt that its blatantly racist immigration policies were preventing Canada from achieving this goal. At the same time, there were growing pressures from within Canada as immigrant groups lobbied for fairer regulations.

A major change came in 1967 with the introduction of the point system. This system abolished the previous method which allowed for judgements based on race or class in favour of one that was now “colour-blind.” The new system awarded potential immigrants points based on education, work experience, and proficiency in one of the official languages. If people earned enough points, they could apply to immigrate. In the same year, immigration offices were opened in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. These changes led to a large increase in the number of West Indians immigrating to Canada.

Black family, Vulcan, Alberta.

People from Caribbean nations have chosen to immigrate to Canada because they view immigration as a way to establish a better future for themselves and their families. There are two main reasons immigrants choose Canada: Canada is know (1) for its political and civil freedom and stability and (2) for a healthier economy that promises not only jobs, but also the possibility of advancement.

Haiti is one example of a country whose people have left to seek out political freedoms not enjoyed at home. Since declaring its independence in 1804, Haiti has seen history marred by a succession of exploitive dictators and rulers. It has experienced coups d’etat, foreign occupation, and widespread human rights abuses as leaders attempted to root out opposition. Therefore, when Canada changed its immigration policies in 1967, many Haitians left their country. The immigrants to Canada were largely made up of not only professionals such as health workers and teachers, but also of political dissidents. As French speakers, Haitians settled predominantly in Québec.

Since 1972, Haitians have continued to arrive in Canada. However, many of these immigrants have entered Canada as refugees. As such, their tendency to speak Creole rather than French, compounded with their lower levels of education, has meant that Haitian refugees have had a harder time adapting to Canada. Still, these immigrants have settled in Québec — predominantly in Montréal. In 2001, there were 74,465 people of Haitian extraction living in Québec, and of those, 69,945 lived in Montréal, thereby making Haitians the largest visible minority in that city.

Jamaica has not suffered the political hardships experienced by Haitians; nevertheless, large numbers of Jamaicans immigrate to Canada. In this case, however, they do so for economic rather than for political reasons. Jamaicans find work in farming, mining, and tourism — industries dominated by international corporations. This has led to high levels of unemployment.

Most Jamaicans coming to Canada have settled in the Toronto region. In 2001, there were 150,840 Jamaicans living in Toronto and another 30,000 living in Ontario in cities such as Ottawa and Kitchener. An additional 30,000 Jamaicans were scattered throughout the rest of Canada.

Although West Indians have been immigrating to Canada for hundreds of years, they have not immigrated to all parts of Canada in equal numbers. The earliest immigrants arrived in the Maritimes and subsequently moved to Québec and Ontario where more recent immigration has been concentrated.

Québec has seen large numbers of Haitian immigrants because of their fluency in French.

Ontario has received the largest number of West Indians: they settled there first. The local population grew through two ways:

  1. Families immigrating to Canada would join their already established relatives in the Toronto area.
  2. West Indians were attracted to the area to join in the community already established.

Still, many West Indians have moved to Alberta, and most have settled in urban centres such as Calgary and Edmonton in search of work. In 2001, there were 31,390 black people living in Alberta — a little less than 5 percent of the national total. In Edmonton, there is an annual celebration of Caribbean culture, the Cariwest Festival. This three-day festival has been held every August since 1986 and kicks off with a parade through the downtown area. Calgary’s Caribbean celebration, Carifest, held every year in June, celebrated its 25th year in 2006. The first event is a Miss Caribbean pageant.


Statistics Canada information on Haitians

Mensah, Joseph. Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2002.

Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

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