New Internationalist

A sort of betterment

Issue 094

Hundreds of thousands of West Indians have emigrated to Britain, Canada and the US over the last three decades. It’s been a major haemorrhage of talent and energy. Lennox Grant talks to one Trinidadian family, the Dyers, about their new life in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

Photo: Hazel Palmer
Carmen and Earlvin Dyer in their Ottawa shop: 'You think I wanted to stay there and cut cane?' Photo: Hazel Palmer

Trinidad has beckoned many of its nationals abroad to return and share in its current oil-based prosperity. But Earlvin and Carmen Dyer, pioneers of the late 1960s wave of immigration to Canada, are unlikely to join them.

We have made our roots here,’ is how Earlvin Dyer puts it. But his two sons, Kirvin, 10, and Andre, 7, dream aloud about going back to the island they’ve heard so much about. For them Trinidad is a fairytale romance of coconut trees to climb, fruit for the picking, and summer all year round. And something else: ‘I want to know all the Dyers,’ says Andre. Already, ,roots’ seem to mean different things to the two generations.

I had a plan to go back and open a club (a bar and gambling saloon) in La Romain where I’m from,’ says Earlvin, ‘but that ent for me no more. Why should I go back and take away something from somebody there? They stayed and slaved - let them enjoy the fruits.’

Earlvin Dyer was one of more than 11,000 Trinidadians who emigrated mainly to the US and Canada in 1968 alone. He and his wife Carmen had met in a government office in Point Fortin, then a depressed oil town in south Trinidad. In the 60s, when land wells were drying up and offshore drilling not yet successful the government ran a’crash programme’ to provide tempor­ary public works jobs for the unemployed and the unemployable. Earlvin and Carmen had the education to land clerical jobs in ‘the crash’, but not the certificates to qualify them for the status, security, and pay of the regular civil service. Nor did they have the connections to get one of a dimin­ishing number of better-paid jobs with the oil companies.

The oil companies, the sugar estates and the government were then the three sources of employment and all were in a state of stagnation or retrenchment.

Trinidad was hard,’ Earlvin remembers, ‘and if you had ambition you had to find a way to get the hell out. We had no future unless we went back to school. You think I wanted to stay there and cut cane?, He began a correspondence course with Radio College of Canada. The final part of the course required classroom attendance in Montreal. On January 1, 1968, wearing long johns under his new woollen suit, Earlvin stepped off the plane into the welcoming blast of the Canadian winter.

In Montreal, he was quickly launched into the familiar immigrant hustle of work­and-study. ‘Man, I did work I would never have done in Trinidad. For a week, I swept a tobacco factory. When you blow your nose in the toilet, it black. The factory used to give you a glass of milk. They said it good for the lungs.’ Later he found a job in a television factory in Prescott, a small town 125 miles from Ottawa. He was to work there six years, rising from tester to foreman. In ‘69, Carmen joined him and they were married.

For Carmen, Prescott was lonely at first. She missed the community-centred ‘to­getherness’ of her little hometown in Trinidad. Her first job as a receptionist paid the lordly sum of $60 a week. ‘The other girls in the office were laughing,’ she recalls, ‘but that was big money for me.’ After her first child was born she took another job as a payroll clerk, then two spells of factory work. Then the Dyers went into business.

Earlvin was no stranger to business. In La Romain, his mother used to run a ‘parlour’, a small neighbourhood conven­ience store. Carmen’s last Trinidad job had been office manager in the office where they both once worked. After being laid off Earlvin bought a service station, then opened a shop to sell and repair electronic equipment in Prescott. At one stage Carmen ran the service station while he ran the shop. Finally in 1977, they bought an electronics shop in Ottawa.

They sell Caribbean, African and black American records, repair equipment and hire out a variety of audio hardware from walkie-talkies to public address systems. But Joe’s Sound Systems, as the shop is called, is a major link in the West Indian cultural network in Ottawa. Joe’s sponsors a weekly programme of reggae, funk, and calypso on a local radio station, and Joe’s also puts out the annual Ottawa carnival band in the Montreal Carifesta. ‘I’m a kind of nucleus,’ Earlvin says. ‘Everybody comes to my place and lets me know what’s going on.’

But the businessman Earlvin never loses sight of the fact that the mainstay of his enterprise isn’t the sale of records to main­ly West Indians, but the repair and rental of equipment mainly by whites. So he doesn’t want Joe’s to be called a black or West Indian business in a city of 350,000 where blacks number probably number only 5,000. He’s determined nottojoinany bandwagon on racial issues. He explains: ‘I never had any race problems, and I don’t intend to fight anybody’s battles.’

Like so many blacks outside the big urban centres, and even in Ottawa, the Dyers seem only dimly aware of the kind of racial tensions that can surface in Toronto or Montreal. The Sir George Williams University affair, when West Indian stud­ents were charged for damaging a Montreal computer centre, was said to poison race relations for a long time. ‘Nothing like that ever affected us,’ Earlvin says. ‘It was none of my business, and I wasn’t interested. And the countryfolks we lived among either didn’t know about it or didn’t care. In truth, all the racial problems I have had have been with my own people.’

But Earlvin is concerned with keeping West Indian culture alive in Ottawa. His shop is one of a widening network of out­lets for distributing Caribbean music in North America. He’s convinced the market exists for a lot more calypso and soca music than is now produced in the Carib­bean for export. Earlvin and Carmen also see that their own sons grow up in the culture of the parents - eating the foods, loving the music, dancing the dances.

This isn’t a hard country,’ Earlvin says. ‘But if our people have to survive, we got to stoop to conquer. You gotta be humble, be subtle, smile. You gotta be nice to people.’ Carmen, musing on their life in Canada, nods, and in her typical, under­stating way, she says, ‘Yes, it’s a sort of a betterment.’

Lennox Grant is a Trinidadian journalist living in Canada.

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