Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 2)
Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 1, 2010
For decades, Canada kept West Indians out of the country on all sorts of racist pretexts. An old standby was that people from tropical regions were fundamentally unsuited to the climate and culture of Canada, and their propensity for indolence and moral turpitude would inevitably turn them into “public charges.” Of course, that line of thinking could be conveniently suspended whenever there was a pressing need for cheap, exploitable labor. One way that Canada periodically tamed its antipathy towards West Indians, then, was by “domesticating” them, a strategy that I touched on in Part 1 of this post.
The other domestic strategy that Canada periodically pursued was at once more conventional and more bizarre. It involved courtship and matrimony—but on a national scale. I’ll explain with an abridged excerpt from the essay I mentioned last time:
In the 1930s, for example, when Caresser was mourning the abdication of Edward VIII, Canada was still tucking in its shirt and wiping lipstick off its collar after a slightly caddish forty-year dalliance with the West Indies. As historian Robin Winks tells it: on several occasions between about 1880 and 1920, prominent business and political figures in Canada led movements for federation or even outright “union” with the British West Indies. (The most powerful and persistent of these voices was the “Canadian-West Indian League,” which from 1910 through the 1950s lobbied for closer ties between the two regions as a means of advancing Canadian trade and commercial interests in the Caribbean. Its propaganda organ, the Canada-West Indies Magazine, outlived the League’s political influence.) From the Canadian perspective, these efforts were mostly about securing trade advantages and a ready source of cheap labor. However, while Prime Minister Robert Borden privately conceded to an aide in 1919 that such an innovative inter-colonial relationship might give Canada useful experience shouldering the white man’s burden, he did not relish facing what he called “the difficulty of dealing with the coloured population who would probably…desire and perhaps insist upon representation in Parliament.” And that was the end of that.
Trade and tourism increased steadily over the subsequent decades, however, and further proposals of union were mooted occasionally right on through the late 1950s. The most sensational was a wide-eyed 1953 cover story for Maclean’s which trumpeted that “The West Indies Want to Join Us.” (“At the stroke of a pen,” gushed its opening lines, Canada “could expand from Arctic to equator,” becoming “one of the most cosmopolitan nations on earth!”). Inspired by two senior New Brunswick politicians who’d floated the idea in parliament, the article’s author, Eric Hutton, flaunted his own years of experience as a Caribbean correspondent with informants throughout the region. After a quick overview of the many benefits that would accrue to Canada were it to annex a tropical archipelago as its eleventh province (“four million new citizens, frontiers on the equator, a three-hundred-million-dollar market, plus calypsos and cricket”), Hutton turned to the question he was sure was foremost on everyone’s mind: “what manner of people are these potential new Canadians”? His first answer was oblique—and prophylactic:
Racially, the West Indies could be nature’s experimental project to prove that people of all races, colors, and creeds can live, work, and play together in peace and prosperity—without consciously realizing that they are part of any such experiment. Many an Anglo-Saxon resident of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, one of the largest cities in the West Indies, would be astonished if it was suggested there was anything unusual in a white family having a Negro dentist, a Hindu doctor, a Chinese lawyer, and a next-door neighbor in whom were mingled the strains of all three.
One can almost imagine Hutton hopefully anticipating the effect of these revelations on his own doubtful readers. (“There are ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in the West Indies—who knew? And colored professionals? Perhaps those ones wouldn’t be so bad. And they all live together in peace and prosperity, he says…Well, all right, then!”)
A few pages later, Hutton faced the matter more squarely. One of the proposal’s parliamentary sponsors claimed to have received letters from all over Canada in response to the Commons speech in which he had first advanced the idea. Opinion was divided, he said, with correspondents from “The Maritimes and Quebec…preponderantly in favor” and those from the plains and the west, less so. The objection most frequently raised, however, was that union
would open Canada to free entry of colored “new Canadians” attracted by tales of high wages, but not adapted to living and working in this country; and that Canadian taxpayers would be burdened by the addition of a “poorhouse population” entitled to all the welfare benefits evolved through Canada’s high standards of production and consumption.
As I mentioned earlier, it was precisely these pernicious myths that had informed the past half-century’s worth of immigration policy. For that reason, perhaps, Hutton felt compelled to take them seriously, and to deflect them. “On the subject of the feared invasion of Canada by the West Indies,” he demurred that while wages might indeed be seductively higher in Canada, so was the cost of living. All things considered, then, the putative “attractions of Canada” were probably “more valid to Canadians than to West Indians.” It was true, he conceded, that
[t]here would be West Indians entering Canada, to do business, to go to school—even to work. But the West Indians themselves do not think the number would reach problem proportions, especially if, as expected, Canadian investments in the West Indies result in development of the islands. Given opportunities in their own land, the West Indians, especially the colored population, will choose to remain in their accustomed surroundings. (my emphasis)
Lest Canadians become preoccupied with questions of color, however, Hutton encouraged them to reframe the picture in terms of dollars and cents. There was big money to be made in the “vast market” of the Caribbean, he reminded his readers, and union would merely formalize and protect a “Canada-West Indies interdependence” that was “already very real.” West Indians were “eager for Canadian food, manufactured goods, and building materials,” he enthused. And “[i]f the West Indies become Canada’s eleventh province, Canadians will find many profitable fields for investment and development,” including “unestimated quantities of bauxite, hardwood, gold, diamonds, manganese and mica.” (Of course, Canadians had already made big money in the Caribbean. At the end of World War II, more than 1500 Canadian firms had interests in the region. The Atlantic provinces, especially, counted the Caribbean as their most important trading partner, and Canadian banks and insurance companies had virtually monopolistic control over the Caribbean finance industry.)
While he gave rhetorical pride of place to the economic argument for union, however, Hutton also emphasized that this potentially lucrative arrangement could have salutary social and cultural implications: a racially mixed nation, he thought, would be one—quite unlike the United States, with its increasingly ominous racial problems—that was entirely free of race-consciousness. Indeed, Canadian “investment and development” had already shown how such an idyllic society could be achieved: in its company town in the Guyanese interior, where white Canadians mixed freely with local “colored” employees with “no trouble of any kind,” the bauxite-mining giant Alcan had “taken the lead in banishing racial discrimination.” A tropical partner might encourage strait-laced Canadians to loosen up in other ways, as well: not only would she model a more relaxed, “colorful,” and sophisticated way of life, she would instantly “put Canada into the big time in cricket” and give it “a track-and-field team of Olympic caliber.” In calypso, moreover, her dowry would bestow upon Canada “a distinct art form, as genuine as American jazz or the German lieder,” and in carnival, Canadians would learn “sheer abandon” and “pagan joy unconfined”:
A [presumably white] Canadian airline official who saw the carnival for the first time last year declared: “It simply has to be seen to be believed. After I’d looked on for an hour, who do you think I found masked and wearing a funny hat and streamers of pink paper, singing and prancing down the street with a band of raving mad total strangers? Why, ME!”
Not for nothing does the pictorial spread (“What the British West Indies Would Offer in Return for Full Provincial Status in Canada”) accompanying the article lead with “A tropic resort area second to none” and underscore how “The colorful mixture of races would put us among the world’s most cosmopolitan nations.” “A new race is being born in the West Indies as types intermarry,” a sub-caption helpfully explained. Who knows what kinds of free and easy relations all that tropical bacchanal might lead to?
Even if Hutton’s case for union was built on wishful thinking, however, it had the virtue of clarifying the erotic logic behind all the previous proposals dating back to the 1880s. All along, it seems, the plans for “union” had envisioned a marriage of convenience (for Canada) in which the partners would maintain separate households, the “wife” would for all practical purposes be a dusky mistress, and all the steamier forms of connubial congress between the two would be relegated to the tropics. Canada may have wanted closer, uh, intercourse with the West Indies, just not in a way that would involve more West Indian bodies up north.