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Ottawa’s Caribbean Domestic Pioneers

The documentary The West Indian Domestic Scheme Domestic Pioneeers is an oral and community history project started in 2010 by the Ottawa-based non-profit organizations Jaku Konbit and Black History Ottawa. The documentary, directed by Garmamie Sideau, sought to show the contributions of Caribbean women to the National Capital Region and to Canadian heritage. Over the course of two years, Sideau interviewed numerous women who had moved from the Caribbean to Canada to work as domestic workers in the 1950s. The interviews reveal these women’s hardships, perseverance and the immense contributions they made to Canadian culture, and to the raising Canadian citizens.

Officially called the West Indian Domestic Scheme, the 1955 Canadian policy responded to pressure to allow more Caribbean immigrants into the country, so long as they were women willing to work in the domestic field. After working for one year as domestics, they were permitted to take up employment of their choosing and bring family members into the country. This scheme followed decades of racist policies that greatly restricted non-White immigration to Canada, including an official 1953 statement justifying such discrimination on the grounds that West Indian immigrants could not stand Canada’s harsh winters.

Under the Domestic Scheme, around three thousand West Indian women moved to Canada. To be accepted into the scheme, they were required to meet four criteria: they had to be between the ages of 18 and 35 and unmarried, have attained at least an 8th grade education, have passed a medical examination, and been interviewed by Canada immigration. Only successful applicants were authorized to migrate to Canada, and so many of them left families behind when they accepted jobs up North. Of the accepted women, the vast majority moved to Montreal or Toronto, with a number also settling in nearby cities such as Ottawa. This documentary focuses on the women who settled in Ottawa, their experiences and how their lives shaped the Canadian capital for the better.

Watch the Trailer:

The sharing of this history was made possible by Jaku Konbit and Black History Ottawa.

If you are interested in watching the entire documentary, it is available for purchase through this link.