Sheila Sealy Monteith: Leading the Jamaican charge in Canada

Sunday, October 30, 2011

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SINCE February 2010, Sheila Sealy Monteith has been the Jamaican High Commissioner to Canada. Hers is the task of managing the bilateral relationship between both countries, a task which she admits is hectic, but satisfying, having inherited, as she describes it, "a situation where the relations between Jamaica and Canada are at a very good place".


Indeed, the Jamaican/Canadian relationship is very much alive and vibrant, in part due to the active Jamaican Diaspora in Canada. The Canadian contingency at the biennial Diaspora convention, for example, has always outnumbered that of the American and United Kingdom (UK) contingencies, despite the fact that at approximately 250,000, the numbers of Jamaicans in Canada, whether by birth or heritage, are fewer than those in the United States (approximately 1.5 million) and the UK (approximately 800,000). Importantly, the high commissioner indicates that 75 per cent of this figure lives in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).


The Diaspora in Canada is intimately involved in the Jamaican happenings, not only boasting vibrant alumni associations — of which there are about 40 in Toronto alone — but an enthusiasm and nostalgia about Jamaica that is synonymous with the Diaspora.


Over the years, as the high commissioner explains, the Diaspora in Canada has chosen two main areas — health and education — in they can actively engage assist Jamaican development. In June for example, while here for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade’s biennial Heads of Missions Meeting, and also for the Jamaican Diaspora Convention, the high commissioner presented healthcare equipment to the Ministry of Health on behalf of the Diaspora. And in August, the minister of state presented a cheque handed to her from the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE) to the Paul Island Basic School in Westmoreland.


PACE, which was founded in 1987 by Dr Mavis Burke, OD, a Jamaicanborn educator who migrated to Canada in 1970, is known for its support of Jamaican early childhood learning institutions.


Whilst the Jamaican Diaspora in Canada, through PACE, is contributing to early childhood institutions here, the high commissioner is encouraging Jamaicans in Canada to invest and do business in Jamaica. She explains the purpose of the Jamaican investment forums.


"The trade and investment forum held by JAMPRO in Toronto in June this year attracted some of our own people, and while we are open to Canadians generally, it is our hope that the familiarity that our people have with their homeland will inspire them to want to associate with Jamaica in this way."


The high commissioner has, therefore, extended an invitation to Jamaican entrepreneurs in Canada to participate in the Prime Minister’s Investment Forum, which will be held in Jamaica in December 2012.


However, on the subject of Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary, Sealy Monteith doesn’t have to do much in terms of galvanising support. With Jamaica 50 set to unite Jamaicans at home and abroad in celebration and euphoria, the Diaspora in Canada has already felt the excitement, with Jamaica 50 committees in Canada already launched. As the high commissioner discloses, Jamaica 50 Toronto and Jamaica 50 Ottawa have not only already been launched, but the fundraising events have begun.


Additionally, a huge initiative coming out of the Jamaica 50 Canada leg of planning and activities is the Grand Jamaica Homecoming 2012. Launched in early August, the initiative encourages Jamaicans in the Diaspora worldwide, not just Canada, to come home to Jamaica in 2012.


So receptive has the Diaspora been to this initiative, that after only some three weeks on YouTube, the Ashley ‘Grub’ Cooper penned song Come Home Jamaica received
20,000 hits and was the 17th most watched video on YouTube for one week. And with just two months on the site, the video now has over 40,000 hits.


Sealy Monteith explains the Canadian Diaspora’s psyched anticipation of Jamaica 50:


"In Canada, for the most part, they have been able to do well for themselves, their families and their community. Still, they feel very much Jamaican and have a strong impetus to give back, support their country and maintain the connection. The 50th anniversary then becomes an opportunity to portray to the Canadian society and indeed to the world, the excellence that characterises the Jamaican persona and which distinguishes us from so many others."


Whilst it is Sealy Monteith’s office, with great support from the Consul General’s Office in Toronto, which coordinates and oversees the Jamaica 50 activities in Canada, this is akin to but one hat on the high commissioner ’s hat rack.


Aside from other Diaspora issues, she is also monitoring and promoting bilateral co-operation; ministerial visits; the Canada/Caricom relationship and other routine high commission activities such as the paperwork and processing involved in deportation matters.


Jamaicans visible in the Canadian workforce


The high commissioner explains that "Jamaicans have been migrating to Canada over the years in cycles that speak to the needs of the Canadian economy."


It is in this cyclical migration pattern, tied to the workforce needs of the Canadian economy, that Sealy Monteith sees room for increased bilateral co-operation. While explaining that the Jamaican worker is "held in high regard" in Canada, and that the economy of certain provinces are poised to grow in important sectors, she makes the point that both countries could cooperate further in the field of labour.


"Without prejudice to our own need at home for workers to help drive our economy, perhaps we could explore the possibilities of more Jamaicans being placed in the Canadian market through such mechanisms as labour agreements," she says.


She also made the point that the seasonal agricultural workers programme is a success that could be replicated in other sectors.


Juggling the family and diplomacy


On a personal level, the 25-year Jamaican Foreign Service veteran who speaks three languages — English, French and Spanish — and who was previously the Jamaican Ambassador to Mexico (2005-2010), chose diplomacy from day one.


"It was the only job for which I interviewed when I was on the brink of leaving university. I was accepted and given a starting date, but was subsequently advised that there was a freeze on Government employment, so I went to teach for a year," she explains.


After pursuing advanced studies and after the year of teaching, she was once again offered a position within the ministry and by June 1986, she was a member of the Jamaican Foreign Service.


She also confides that, although locally the staff of the Jamaican Foreign Ministry is predominantly female, this is not the case internationally. "It is still amazing to me that many continue to remark at our situation in the Jamaican Foreign Service where women dominate. In one country where I served recently, I had a colleague who was the first female ambassador for her country," she says.


— Ministry of Foreign Affairs


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