"Independence, She Arrives With A Calypso Beat"
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“Independence, She Arrives With A Calypso Beat”

Half a century ago, Torontonians celebrated the independence of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

Celebrating Jamaican independence at the King Edward Hotel. Front page, the Globe and Mail, August 7, 1962.

For Torontonians with ties to the Caribbean, August 1962 was a proud month. Two former British colonies gained their independence at either end of the calendar page: Jamaica on August 6, Trinidad and Tobago on August 31. Both events were marked here by musings about each nation’s future ties to Canada and celebrations filled with dancing, music, and politicking.

The Globe and Mail saluted Jamaica’s day of independence with an editorial:

Today Jamaica becomes an independent nation, and other members of the Commonwealth gladly welcome this attractive addition to the family. Canada has already developed close ties with the Caribbean island, and relations between the two countries should flourish now that Jamaica assumes the freedom and responsibility of a sovereign state.

The editorial highlighted Jamaica’s promise (rich in raw materials like bauxite and fruit) and its potential difficulties (a high birth rate). It also addressed Cold War concerns:

Any economic instability might encourage the kind of revolutionary movement that has already taken control of Cuba, which is only a few miles away. Jamaica’s first Prime Minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante, has said: “We are pro-American…We are anti-Communist. We belong to the West, and we’ll stay with the West.” If this view is to prevail, the West must fulfill its responsibility to Jamaica. Canada can assume a large share of this responsibility. Through economic aid, investment, trade and educational assistance we can help to make Jamaica a bastion of freedom and stability in the troubled Caribbean.

The main celebration in Toronto was a party, which drew over 200 people to the King Edward Hotel. Dignitaries ranging from Mayor Nathan Phillips to Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Director Daniel Hill enjoyed island foods and the calypso sounds of Lord Power II and His Jamaicans. Eleven-year old Donna Armstrong set a new world record by successfully dancing under a limbo stick when it was only six inches off the ground, beating the old mark by two inches.

Brief profiles of the new nations. Left: the Globe and Mail, August 6, 1962. Right: the Globe and Mail, August 28, 1962.

After unveiling the new Jamaican national anthem and flag, and the reading of a message from Bustamante, toasts were made. One of the most politically charged speeches was delivered by future federal NDP leader David Lewis, then MP for York South. Lewis’ toast called 300 years of British rule over Jamaica “a blot on the face of Western civilization.” He believed Canada had two duties toward the new nation: provide economic aid and strike down discriminatory elements of our immigration laws. “We should practice in our immigration policy our many statements about removing discrimination,” Lewis noted, “and invite people of Jamaica to Canada with the same open heart and mind as we do those from other Commonwealth countries.”

Lewis also used the occasion to note that Jamaica’s date of independence coincided with the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and called for peace from all nations. Not everything he said was heavy-handed—early in his toast, Lewis remarked “The first thing we Canadians can learn from the Jamaicans is how to get a distinctive flag,” a lesson we learned three years later.

Fellow toaster and pioneering African-Canadian labour official Stanley Grizzle also spoke about the benefits of opening Canada up to Jamaican immigrants. “We’re a haven for refugees,” Grizzle observed. “We have a good record in the area of human relations and in the search for peace.” He felt that Canada should “initiate a marvelous new demonstration in human relations by acknowledging the labour surplus in the islands, and welcoming to our shore more Jamaicans.”

Mayor Phillips also attended a smaller celebration held that day at the Don Mills home of Alex Cooper, Canadian manager of the Jamaican Government tourist board. The Globe and Mail reported that “simulated palms, drumbeats, fishnets, driftwood, pretty girls, tropical garb and spirits of the sugar cane merged to give gaiety to the occasion.”

Prince George Hotel, southeast corner of King and York Streets, as it looked in 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1131.

While Jamaica’s independence gained front-page exposure, Trinidad and Tobago’s celebrations were lower profile. All Toronto dailies ran wire reports of the festivities in Port of Spain, differentiated only by their headlines, of which the Telegram had the catchiest: “Independence, She Arrives With A Calypso Beat.” A party organized by Trinidadian students drew over 200 people to the Prince George Hotel at King and York on independence day. The main speaker was University of Toronto law professor (and future Chief Justice of Canada) Bora Laskin, who spoke about the problems Trinidad and Tobago would face on its own.

Of the hopes expressed when both nations became independent, the ones regarding immigration policy came to fruition. Loosening of restrictions during the late 1960s led to a substantial migration during the following decade that helped build Toronto’s Caribbean community. It would not take long for the diaspora to make its mark culturally on Toronto—five years after the comparatively small-scale celebrations of 1962, Caribana debuted.

Additional material from the August 6, 1962 and August 7, 1962 editions of the Globe and Mail, the August 7, 1962 and September 1, 1962 editions of the Toronto Star, and the August 7, 1962 and August 31, 1962 editions of the Telegram.