Columns

Sister P's Canadian love-in

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, October 27, 2012    

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Prime Minister Simpson Miller was on form as she took Toronto and Ottawa by storm early this week. Sister P arrived in Canada's biggest city (home to nearly all of the almost quarter-million of the country's Jamaican immigrants) on Sunday and headed off to the national capital, Ottawa, the next day. She met her Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, whom you will recall, addressed Gordon House three years ago. By all accounts, it was something of a love-in, which was obvious to a crowd of several hundred packed into a meeting hall at the home of the Jamaican-Canadian Association in Toronto on Monday evening.

The two prime ministers spoke warmly of each other and each other's country, and ended the evening standing for well over half an hour for a photo session with a good portion of the large crowd. I remarked to someone that Harper didn't know what he was getting into, but the response was "politicians are always looking for votes". Which was not a bad thing from his point of view - over the years Toronto has been very unkind to his Conservative party. This city is a stronghold of the once mighty Liberal Party of Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, and even as that party has fallen out of favour in many parts of the country, the Conservatives barely scratched out a foothold in the city in a federal election last year.

On their way from Ottawa, the prime ministers made a stop at Queen's Park - a handsome reddish sandstone building that is home of the Ontario legislature - to pay homage to one of Canada's pioneering black politicians. Lincoln Alexander, son of a Jamaican hotel maid and a Vincentian who for years travelled the country as a railway porter, died a week earlier at the age of 90 and lay in state at the legislature as people streamed by to pay tribute.

A tall, imposing man with a powerful voice, Alexander was the country's first black MP, taking a seat in the city of Hamilton as a Conservative, even as the Liberals swept the country in the federal election of 1968. When the Conservatives returned to power just over a decade later, Prime Minister Joe Clark appointed him minister of labour, the first black person ever to hold a federal cabinet position in Canada. After representing his riding over a dozen years and five elections, Alexander resigned in 1980 to head up the Worker's Compensation Board of Ontario, a post he held for five years when fate came calling once again. This time he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the province of Ontario, the first person of colour to hold that post, which mirrors that of the Governor-General. That person is the Queen's representative in Canada, while the Lt-Governor is the Queen's representative for the province. The official mourning ended yesterday with a state funeral in Alexander's home town, Hamilton.

Both prime ministers lauded Alexander's memory as well as the contribution of numerous other Jamaicans in Canada's public life, going right back to the time of the first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whose second wife was born on an estate we know as Bernard Lodge.

Harper made a point of addressing the elephant in any room where black immigrants gather - gun violence. Earlier this year, a young man fired shots at the food court of the Eaton Centre, one of Toronto's biggest indoor shopping malls, as hordes of Saturday shoppers milled around. Two people were killed and five wounded in the attack. The person the police charged wasn't Jamaican, but Guyanese - still too close to allay any misgivings. In July, two people were killed and 23 wounded in a gun fight during a street party in a suburban city-run housing settlement.

Every time there is an incident like this, immigrants from Jamaica, others parts of the Caribbean or Africa shudder and hope the culprit isn't a black person. Fingers are often pointed at the gang members - young men in teeming apartment blocks scattered around outlying fringes of the city. Harper's government, with a large contingent of uptight ultra-conservatives who support the most punitive measures, has introduced a string of legislation which criminologists say will achieve nothing. The provinces, which administer prisons for those serving sentences of two years less a day, have been pressuring Ottawa to pay for the expected flood of new prisoners from its tougher crime regimen.

They say they can't afford to house the prisoners who will fill their prisons, even though it's not because of their own actions. The criminal code is a federal concern, rather than of the provinces, but they feel the burden will unfairly fall on them. For the Jamaican ears he addressed on Monday, Harper offered solace: "It has come to my attention that since July, many in this community - Toronto's Jamaican-Canadian community - feel that they live in the shadow of criminality arising out of incidents like the Danzig Street and Eaton Centre shootings." That seemed to go over well, and he continued, "Canadians understand that the only community placed under a shadow by perpetrators of these crimes is the community of criminals ... People who came from Jamaica to Canada have come in search of a better life, and to contribute positively to our country, not to live in fear of street gangs and criminals."

Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy forced Simpson Miller to cut her visit short and return home on Tuesday. She was supposed to address a prominent business luncheon in Toronto, and the foreign minister, AJ Nicholson, stepped into the breach. He delivered the speech she was to have given, offering to make it easier for Canadian investment to flow into Jamaica. The government promises to reduce red tape, streamline bureaucracy and otherwise remove impediments to new businesses. The message is to make Jamaica "more than a great holiday getaway, but also a vibrant business destination" which welcomes investment.

Sister P, who is well known for her generous hugs and kisses, did not leave Harper in the lurch. Both leaders were obviously on friendly terms in their appearances. On arrival in the capital, Harper laid on all the correct trappings for a visiting head of government - a 19-gun salute and march through a ceremonial hall of parliament lined with dozens of Jamaican and Canadian flags. As they wrapped up their day of talks, the two leaders held a news conference at which the question of royal relations arose. Harper has ratcheted up the status of the monarchy; since he gained his governing majority last year, Harper has demanded that Canadian missions abroad replace Canadian paintings with large contemporary portraits of the Queen, has restored the "Royal" designation to the air force and the navy and ramped up the pomp and ceremony in jubilee celebrations.

Simpson Miller laid out her stance on transforming Jamaica to a republic: "I do not believe in Jamaica you can find anyone that is a greater fan or admirer of the Queen than I am. But we came through from slavery to colonialism, from colonialism to adult suffrage, from adult suffrage to our independence. And we feel that the time is really right for us to be able to determine our form of government." For Harper's part, he avoided controversy by observing that this subject is "strictly a question for Jamaicans".

keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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