Documentary tells stories of Caribbean women in 1950s Ottawa

The inspirational stories of young black women who moved from the Caribbean to Ottawa during the 1950s and ’60s to work as caregivers will soon be showcased in a documentary film.

The project is being led by the Centretown-based organization Jaku Konbit in collaboration with Black History Ottawa.

The documentary, titled Caribbean Domestic Pioneers, will outline the journey of the first wave of black women who migrated in their early 20s from the West Indies to work in Canada as domestic help.

In 1955, the Canadian government had established a scheme to recruit women of African descent from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and British Guiana. After working for a year as caregivers and housekeepers, the women were granted landed immigrant status.

“When I arrived here it seemed very difficult with the snow and everything, but I had an open mind that I came here to make a better living for myself,” says Phyllis Pinnock, one of the profiled pioneers, in a recorded interview that can be seen on YouTube.

Pinnock recalls that “you could count the few black people that were in Ottawa” at the time.

After working two years a domestic, Pinnock went to work at a hospital and eventually returned to school at the age of 39 to become a registered nurse.

“They laid the foundation for the African-Caribbean community,” says Ken Campbell, president of Jaku Konbit. “They opened up stores and businesses and helped establish community organizations. We want to recognize them and celebrate their contributions.”

Based at the Bronson Centre, Jaku Konbit is a youth advocacy group focused on supporting and educating children of African and Caribbean descent within the Ottawa region.

The idea for the documentary came about three years ago when Jaku Konbit filmed short interviews with four domestic workers, including Pinnock. Campbell says they realized the project was bigger than they first thought and that almost everyone they spoke with knew someone or were themselves connected to one of these women.

Campbell notes that it wouldn’t have been possible for him to be here if it wasn’t for his aunt who came up as a pioneer and then sponsored his mother to come to Canada.

“You know when you come across an interesting story that you feel needs to be shared,” says Garmamie Sideau, a local documentary filmmaker and videographer working with Jaku Konbit on the project.

Before being approached about the first set of interviews, Sideau says he had never heard of the contributions of the Caribbean domestic workers, but immediately knew there was something to follow up on after interviewing the women.

“These women played a role in creating the city,” he says.

The full documentary will be far more comprehensive than the first phase of interviews as Jaku Konbit is aiming for as many participants as possible, with testimonies from pioneers as well as their children.

“It’s going to be a story-based documentary. It’s a collaborative effort in the sense I want to allow the storytellers to paint the picture. I want the process to unravel itself,” says Sideau, adding that “ultimately it’s important to highlight the diversity of their experiences.”

“It’s a learning opportunity. I hope audiences view it that way.”

The 40-minute film will be presented this coming Feb. 15, during Black History Month.

“Normally whenever we do anything around Black History Month celebrations it tends to focus on a lot of music and singing and dancing,” says Campbell.

“This particular project is really going to go beyond that. It’s trying to capture a group of people who made a significant change. We want to formally thank them for the great work that they did.”