Labour Within Canada During the 19th and 20th Centuries - How it was not a Far Stretch From the Times of Slavery for People of African Descent
Labour within Canada during the 19th and 20th centuries was not a far stretch from the times of slavery for people of African descent. Many people, who found themselves freed from the bondage of slavery, became entrenched within a new system where they were once again placed into a position of disenfranchisement. Large groups of African person’s have been considered a threat by the larger community in which they found themselves. Many people fear that the emergence of Black’s will become a point of contention because they come at such a cheap cost for labour.
It is very difficult to ignore the reasons that person’s of African descent were found in this position. Their status of slavery has set in motion the type of jobs that Blacks would find themselves holding, even in the present day context. There is an expectation that African Canadians are only capable of fulfilling the need of menial labour jobs within society; without, much hope for improvement. It has been seen throughout the labour history of Blacks within Canada that they have had a difficult time finding jobs outside of the slave context. When referring to the slave context, this can be defined as the expectations of what Blacks are capable of and as a way of keeping them oppressed and unable to flourish outside of this subservient mould. A trend appears to be on the rise of Black’s fulfilling jobs that were not as desirable to other groups within society. There has been a large shift in immigration policy to help bring over people of African descent to help fill labour needs within Canada. Many of the labourers brought over came from the Caribbean and were women who were sought out to help in the domestic field.
The institution of slavery has affected the way in which person’s of African descent will forever be viewed. It has systematically associated certain types of jobs that were once performed during the period of slavery; with the likeness of Black servitude. It has been difficult for Black’s to divorce them from this formed link from the mind of society. This is an alarming occurrence and goes against the myth that is perpetuated by Canada, that it is a place of opportunity and inclusion. It is quite evident that opportunities are only available for immigrants coming to Canada, are those that are deemed undesirable by people already living within the nation. Hence, when there is a demand for labour there is a visible shift in political policies regarding immigration and a call for cheap labour is released. This paper will examine slavery and the role it played in the issue of labour during the 19th century, the difficulties Black groups who arrived in Canada faced working, and how the government has helped to perpetuate the fulfillment of low wage jobs from African descendents immigration and the struggle to succeed.
The institution of slavery has never been a friend to persons of African descent. The Abolition of slavery did not place an end to the inequalities that Blacks would face centuries later. Slavery created parameters on how Blacks were viewed and the way they would be treated. There is a strong belief in Canada that Canada is a place of opportunity and equality; however, a closer look must be taken at who experiences these opportunities of equality. Wink’s has attributed that “Negros were inferior not because they had been slaves but because they were Negros ,” with slavery not important because they would have been deemed inferior regardless of their previous slave status. Wink’s claim appears to goes against what has been seen because while society makes links inferiority to their race it is perpetuated by the previous types of labour they once did historically and it is those historical labour jobs that have become socially indoctrinated.
Exercising agency that has tangible results has been a difficult feat for people of African descent in the Canadian context. It once again brings up the question of the slave context that cannot be ignored. The slave context has drastically affected the way in which Blacks have created relationships within society. It would be irresponsible to disregard the ramifications that slavery has had on the Black persons and their collective memory.
Being able to partake as an active member of the labour force is integral for the ability of Blacks to support themselves. According to Joseph Mensah, he reinforces the importance of being able to play a successful role within the working community.
Obviously, without jobs, nuclear families (Black or White) cannot survive; without jobs, parents cannot afford better education for their children; without jobs, people resort to crime, drugs, and other illicit activities; without jobs people become dependent on the welfare system.
This quote gives credence to the fears that society has internalized about the stereotypes of Black’s and they are fulfilling their greatest fears.
There appears to be a notion within Canadian society that slavery was not a Canadian problem, rather it was an issue of their American neighbour. When Canada abolished slavery before the United States in 1834 it created a new dynamic between the two countries. Many slaves sought freedom in Canada because of the abolition. Canada welcomed the role of savoir warmly until the population of African American fugitive slaves began to rise. Canadian citizens were already struggling to accept their Canadian Black counterparts that helped to defend their nation. Black Loyalist and refugees from the war of 1812 both risked their lives trying to defend a country that would not even fulfill the promises in which she made. Both groups were promised that they would receive land for their help; however, what they received was an insult. Black soldiers received half the amount of land that their White counterparts got. What was even more insulting was the fact that most of this land was almost inhabitable and undesired land. Since the land they received was not fruitful it is no wonder that Blacks would find themselves entering relationships of indentured servitude to be able to survive.
In Joseph Mensah’s book Black Canadians he brings forth compelling arguments of other scholars forward that should be analyzed further. Hiebert, Gordon, and Edwards are analysts who believe in the labour Market description of labour Market Segmentation theory. It is a theory that states that there is a different category of jobs within the labour force and it breaks down into two groups; primary and secondary labour market. Primary labour market is made up of high skilled jobs that have large room for promotion and wage increases, unionization and other benefits . Secondary jobs are less desirable jobs and have little to no room for promotion and wage increases. These jobs do not have a prerequisite for a specialized skill set. People who are found in this group are majority of minority groups and Blacks in particular . The reason why such an understanding of the market should be considered because if there is type a system that is in place and is recognized by more than one analyst this can give credence to the difficulties that plague Black’s. If there is already a discriminatory system, because people of African descent are more likely to be disadvantaged, they will have a higher probability of working jobs in the second category. Add the historical background of Blacks and the lack of meaningful opportunity and Black’s are stuck into a vicious cycle of systemic oppression that hinders growth and improvement for the masses.
In Robin Wink’s The Black in Canada he quotes an emigration agent from Kingston who said the man who is satisfied with a plentiful supply of the comforts and necessities of life & the means of bringing up a family and afterwards educating them for professions or trades in which, with common industry they can scarcely fail of success, is almost sure to become a useful & happy Member of society.
This emigration agent’s critique of the acceptance of immigrants should be considered with great value. He demonstrates a large understanding of the shortcomings of the acceptance within Canadian society. There appears to be a misconception by the members within Canadian society that immigrants pose a great threat to their autonomy. This misconception affects the way in which immigration practices occur and helps to stifle the growth of the average immigrant within Canada because there is a societal demand to prevent them from excelling within the labour market. The only time immigrants have received a warm welcome is when their perceived threat to society is dramatically outweighed by what these immigrants have to offer. People within the greater society of Canada are willingly to be open to new immigrants when they are giving to society rather than depending. What they fail to realize is that keeping Blacks within the secondary group of the low wage job sector is that they are helping to create situations in which they fear most. It is no surprise that low wage earners are unable to give back to their community as easily if they are struggling financially themselves. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that low wage earners often look to other means of survival when the labour market availability fails them.
During the 19th century there were several groups who came over to Canada. Majority that will this paper will focus on came from the United States. The status of these Black’s varied from freed persons to fugitive slaves. These Blacks came over to Canada with aspirations of a better life, leaving behind the remnants of slavery and its aftermath of oppression.
There was an article that was published on December 5, 1855 in the Provincial Freedman that raised the issue of the discontinuity between undesirable races. People of German and Irish descent were not the most favourable groups within society and the journalist draws a comparison between the three groups. This article captures the essence of another problem that is prevalent within the workforce, which is the ability to be easily divided; and the difficulty to come together. A remedy to the labour issues that were prominent during the 19th century would have been for workers to join together as a united front; acknowledging that Black people did not want to accept low wages, as a means to take jobs away from White’s. Rather because they had no other choice if they were going to survive . The problem is not only a Black problem in this article, it highlights that it is a vicious circle that is a societal issue because it affects everyone. “The white labourer curses the poor abused slave because he is a slave, and the employer takes the advantage of the white man's ignorance, and makes a slave of him also .” The author highlights that creating White superiority and Black inferiority creates a system that is oppressive for both White’s and Blacks who are attempting to get fair wages in the labour market. The argument for this is that because slaves work for no wages, only sustenance, they will always be the preference for employers and it puts White citizens in the position of taking whatever is offered to them financially by employers, and removes their ability to demand fair wages .
The problem of meaningful labour opportunities is not just a problem confined to the labour market. It is an issue that transcends to multiple facets of life. Women have been a group regardless of race that has been waging the fight for equal opportunity within the workforce. Black women not only have to struggle for equality because of their sex, but also because of their race. Gender roles within society, still have a patriarchal expectation of women to be caregivers, nurtures, not moving far from the role of societal mothers . Societal mothers differ from familial mothers because of the expectation placed on them from external sources. Societal mothers are women who have no dependents or families of their own and they are highly desirable to the labour market. The reasons the government sought out women like this to immigrate to Canada from other countries is because they felt that they could keep their allegiance strictly on their jobs, and that they would not have to worry about them wanting to bring over their families to live with them. There were two domestic schemes that shaped the immigration policies for Canada during 1911 and 1955. Both domestic schemes sought to bring over women who were willing to do domestic labour. During the first wave of the domestic scheme in 1911, before the First World War, Canada only sought after women who were from Britain to come and be domestic workers . They created different means of financial breaks so it would be affordable for these women to come over and work. The problem was not being able to bring the women over, because domestic work in Canada was described as easy. The issue that arose with these women who arrived over from Britain is their lack of desire to stay as domestic servants. Many women left the realm of paid domesticity for that of factory and office positions .
Canada has always been very careful with the portrayal of their image to the global world. Canada unlike the United States never passed a racially discriminatory law; rather, they had institutionalized racism that radically affected immigration. The acceptance of Black domestic workers was not as simple as it would appear. Unlike their European predecessors the Caribbean women had a list full of desirable traits in which they would have to fill to be able to become a domestic servant. This list ranged from having an eighth grade education, good health, and were between the ages of 24 to 40. The only commonality between both European and Caribbean workers was that they had to remain a domestic servant for a household for a year, before they could pursue any other career .
Policy makers in the Canadian government were very clever in 1973, when they created the Employment Authorization Program. This was a program that took the only thing those domestic workers who were immigrating to Canada had upon arrival, the ability to have landed status. With this new program the government was able to ensure the new immigrants would not be able to leave the domestic field and they would also not become landed Canadian residents . Rather, they were given permission to do the undesirable labour jobs in a country and like their predecessors did not receive any benefits of their labour and they had to apply for permission to stay and work. The permit they were given to work in Canada was strictly for the domestics and was only given for the duration of a year. The female workers had the opportunity to apply for a renewal of this permit but it could only last for five years, never having the opportunity to apply for landed status.
Due to the uncertainty that would be for a female domestic worker, deportation and losing their jobs was a real and constant fear for them. During the time that the Employment Authorization Program was enacted, labour relations within Canada were increasing. There was an increase in Employment Insurance, the Canadian Pension Plan and other initiatives like set work hours that were great improvements for workers. However, these improvements were often not implemented by employers of these domestic workers and they often abused the rights of the women .
The Domestic Movement Policy was created in attempts to equalize and establish equality for domestic workers. But like many policies that were created it was fair in theory but not exercised by employers and immigration officers. A new policy is useless when it is not acknowledged by those who are in positions of power like employers and immigration officers because as long as they are in the dominant role to these female domestic workers they have the power to destroy their lives. Domestic workers were prevented from being able to form unions. This ban on their ability to collectively organize stifled any ability they could have had to create a united front against their unjust treatment. Wink’s often argues that Black movements were unsuccessful because of their lack of agency and leadership. However, it is situations like the domestic workers that display why it was hard for them to make a violable effort. It would be difficult for these women to make allegiances and form a sisterhood of revolt because they were often isolated in the homes of middleclass families they worked for.
Their situation could be comparable to that of the differences between field and house slaves. Field slaves had the ability to have an almost familial community because of their large numbers and the close proximity to one another. Whereas the house slave was often isolated because of the lack of large numbers required to do house hold chores and the lack of support and numbers made any mistreatments even more difficult to combat. The greater the numbers of a group, the larger threat you can perceivably pose. The domestic servants similar to their house slaves did not pose a threat because they lacked united numbers. Furthermore, the domestic servants, like slaves were easily expendable, with the large number of women vying to get into the country the only way that is possible for them. Agnes Calliste points out what is often a point of contention, that the Caribbean domestic workers did not fit the image that Canada was trying to fulfill during its nation building. European women who came over and fulfilled the roles as domestic labour were highly desirable, because even if they only remained in their roles of a domestic servant for the prescribed year, they could at least have a similar culture to Canadians and create families that would help to sustain the country. Their marriages to Canadian men would create the need for the Caribbean domestic workers to come in, because they would shift as Cohen states from employee to employer with great ease. This is a clear example how the government was able to change immigration policy to seek out the desired effect. They could bring in undesirable candidates into the country and have a way in which to expel them when they no longer had a use. The country was always the advantaged group in this situation because many of the women in which they would bring would not become permanent citizens of the country anymore. This was the case for many years until the policy once again changed and made the women have a semblance of equal opportunity. After they worked in the country for three years as a domestic worker they would have the opportunity to apply for landed status. While this was once again an improvement, it did not mean that these women would be able to rid themselves of their domestic status within the labour force.
Inequality in the labour force does not only affect the one sector of African Descendents lives, but multiple facets. The workforce has the ability to determine the types of relationships people will create within the societal framework. When a group of people have had a strong association linking them to the status of inferiority, it is detrimental to their ability to strive and succeed within a community. When there are preconceived notions on a person’s ability and the jobs that they should fulfill based on race, raise problematic issues for a society. It is important to examine the types of labour done by Blacks in the institution of slavery during the 19th century, the difficulties Black groups who arrived in Canada faced working, and how the government has helped to perpetuate the fulfillment of low wage jobs from African descendents immigration and the struggle to succeed. It is irresponsible to overlook the slave context and how it has placed persons of African descendents to a disadvantage. It is often difficult to acknowledge this within society, and without a true understanding of these ramifications and the implications that it has, there can never be true evolution of racially systemic issues.