Nigeria is where God in His infinite wisdom chose to plant me. Therefore, I don’t consider that I have any right to seek out a more comfortable corner of the world which someone else’s intelligence and labour have tidied up.
– Chinua Achebe, The Trouble with Nigeria.
I am a Caribbean woman; I function best in 82 degrees. But I survived eleven blistering winters in a cold and distant land; and lived to laugh and give testimony to strengths I didn’t know I had. But I must be honest; those eleven years weren’t all bad. There was an annual attraction: Summer. Toronto is, after all, a marvelous city replete with romantic gardens, museums and historic sites. Everything works efficiently and expeditiously. It’s only that, well, the daily temperature is not 82 degrees. And I belong in summer places.
There are a half-million Caribbean people living in Canada, mostly in Toronto, Ontario, which has a population of 2.79 million. According to a recent Ethnic Diversity Survey, Caribbean people in Toronto have a strong sense of belonging to Canada and are involved in Canadian society. I find that quite striking.
And there’s more. A study published in the 80s by the Toronto Star, asserted that Caribbean people are among the most satisfied group in Toronto. Their satisfaction lies with the educational system, health care, social services and child care facilities. And I will add, Caribana—the annual Caribbean Carnival bacchanal.
According to the same study, one of the major disappointments lies with Metro Toronto Police Force which, like in the United States, indulges in racial profiling. Black men who drive nice cars were constantly pulled over. It seemed the Police worked on the assumption that if you’re a black male behind a wheel you were suspect. Today, however, I’m told, Toronto’s chief of police and deputy are both black. So, yes, the city has been making improvements.
What I find more baffling than anything else is how people who have known the intimate blessings of sunshine and shimmering seashores can so quickly adapt to Canadian winters. But, I was told, that climate and coldness are not their primary concerns; it is economics—better wages—better life. True, man cannot live on sunshine alone. For example, blue collar workers make a decent income, and are able to buy nice homes and all the niceties they could not afford in the Caribbean.
As of April 1, 2015, the total population of Canada was estimated at 35,749,600. The visible minority makes up 24 percent. Caribbean people are included in the 24 percent. In the early 70s there was a need for cheap labor; thus Canada’s Immigration Law was liberalized. About 64,000 people from all over the Caribbean migrated.
So, why did I wander into that cold and distant land? I will blame my husband. He worked for an insurance company in Trinidad & Tobago and in 1973 was transferred to Toronto. I being a good wife, fashioning myself after Ruth in the Bible, acquiesced. And so it came to past, we arrived with our two sons (ages three and one) one cold and dreary February afternoon.
I feel like a palm tree
at the corner of Bloor and Yonge
in a wild snow storm
trying desperately to appear unperplexed
put out, sun brown naked and a little embarrassed.
– “Afro West Indian Immigrant” by Dionne Brand.
Yes, I was embarrassed trudging through snow; humiliated waiting for a bus in temperatures below zero. I was uncomfortable being a visible minority and an immigrant. After all, I was from the beautiful U.S. Virgin Islands where the sun was up and shining; where there was no ongoing civil war, unrest or famine. Nobody was sucking salt; there were no starving children.
Bougainvilleas were blooming; cruise ships were docked in Charlotte Amalie harbor; tourists were buying perfume on Main Street; people were gainfully employed; there was electricity, clean running water and flush toilets. People were eating fry fish and johnny cakes, drinking maubi and romping on Magens Bay and I was freezing to death. When I lived on St. Thomas, I too was gainfully employed. But like Ruth, I quit my job when Dearly Beloved was transferred to work in Trinidad.
Ten years later, during a horrific blizzard I stood in a bus shelter and waited two hours for a bus. After all, when you live in other people’s country you learn discipline. And I had learned to be an exceedingly conscientious employee. Come hell or high waters—you go to work every day by any means necessary. In the Caribbean, I will admit, we can be quite laid back; perhaps too laid back. Once you get a job, you labor under the misconception that it is yours for life; it is your 40 acres and a mule. But that is not the case when you live in other people’s country. You can be fired!
So, like an idiot, I waited for a bus.
When the bus arrived, it took two hours to get to my destination, which usually takes 10 minutes. I took the elevator to the seventh floor only to discover that our offices were closing for the day. By then buses had ceased running; too much snow on the streets. In the city where everything worked efficiently and expeditiously, nothing was working.
I waited until 5 p.m. for buses to resume operation. Then it took another two hours to get home. When I walked into our apartment I was frozen, barely alive. I fell on the floor and wept. My two sons now 12 and 14 were at home. They had been sent home; schools too were closed. They held me, cried with me, pulled off my coat and boots, rubbed my face, shoulders and feet and comforted me back to life.
That evening I made the most dramatic and traumatic decision of my life. I would return from whence I came. I did not belong in Canada. Winters were not for humans. Winters were for polar
bears, wild beasts and antelopes. I would no longer emulate Ruth.
My mind was made up; and I felt warm; like what self-respect feels like. And that was good.
I began a campaign; trying to persuade my husband to return to our beautiful islands, any island. He was from Dominica; I was from the Virgin Islands; one son was born in Puerto Rico and the other in Trinidad. We were Caribbean people and did not belong in North America. He quietly insisted that he was not ready. He had a business to run and the time was not right.
I had second thoughts. Was I ungrateful? After all, I had achieved my two goals in life—(a) get
married and (b) have children. I was a happy wife and mother; but I did not have a happy life.
Well, one of the smartest things I did while living in Toronto was to take classes in Creative Writing and Magazine Journalism. I had begun having articles published in The Globe & Mail, so I decided to send a few clippings and my resume to the local newspaper on St. Thomas. I was offered a job; I said yes. The job would begin in May. It was March. I discussed it with Dearly Beloved.
“Well,” he said. “I cannot prevent you from leaving me for the island that you love.” We laughed and made plans. I would leave; the children would follow when school closed in June. I would enroll them in school in St. Thomas, and whenever he was ready to leave Canada, I would join him on any island. We still had a future together.
That was 31 years ago. I have never regretted my decision. My children are grown men. I am a grandmother. Sometimes they tell me I did the right thing and I believe them. I wanted them to grow up in a community with people of their own race; to have kin folks; to know their grandparents, aunts and uncles and have family stories to tell.
And I do agree with the late Chinua Achebe. What right do we have to seek out a more comfortable corner that someone else’s intelligence has tidied up? We can tidy up our own corner and make things work as efficiently and expeditiously as we desire.
We have plenty sun and shimmering beaches to share. And if you visit us, we’ll give you a warm welcome.
My husband and I are no longer husband and wife. None of us remarried; we keep in touch. He
lives on his island. I live on mine. We are Caribbean people.
I am where I belong on an island of ancient mahogany trees where 169 years ago, in 1848, my enslaved ancestors demanded freedom and got it. I see the cane fields where my grandmother in 1917 cut cane for a living. I drive on the Queen Mary Highway, where Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and other plantation workers, (warrior women were called queens) on Nov. 1, 1878, (139 years ago) revolted for higher wages and humane working conditions. They burn down 48 plantations, 30 main houses and crops and most of the sugar mills. I am where I belong.
The temperature is 82 degrees; and I am one happy Caribbean woman.
Daisy Holder Lafond was born on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands and studied Creative Writing and Magazine Journalism in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Poui, Small Axe, Interviewing The Caribbean and elsewhere. She is co-author of All This is Love – A Collection of Virgin Islands Poetry, Art & Prose and the 2012 winner of The Caribbean Writer’s Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize and second place winner in Small Axe 2015 Poetry Competition. She is a mother and grandmother and lives on St. Croix.