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teacher Eileen Augusta Headley Alfred

by Marguerite Alfred | January 26, 1999

Eileen Alfred came to Canada in 1956 with her husband. A Barbadian married to a Trinidadian, she was an elementary school teacher, he a sanitary inspector. Like many young couples, they wanted to do better to provide for their three small children.

On arriving in Halifax, they had great difficulty finding adequate accommodation. Many doors were slammed in their faces before they finally found a walk-up flat with an outdoor toilet in a run-down area of the city. The rejections and slum-like conditions shocked them. They had left a comfortable family home with electricity and indoor plumbing and were well respected in their community. Although Eileen was offered a job in a predominantly Black school, they could not accept bringing up their children in that kind of deprived situation. They took a train to Montreal and found a flat near McGill University. Eileen was hired by a private church school. Emmanuel was not as lucky. Although they both experienced severe culture shock, he reverted to familiar behaviours – abuse and philandering. Still, they sent for the children and enrolled them in the school across the street.

Eileen did her best to keep the family together. In addition to her full-time teaching job, she worked part-time at the Montreal General Hospital and used what little time was left to do some dressmaking at home. The only job Emmanuel was offered was as porter for Canadian National Railways. He became acutely aware that as a Black man he would be treated differently and he could not cope. Despite being enrolled at university, he gave up and returned to the Caribbean with the children. Eileen, reluctant to leave Canada, joined him soon after, but the marriage was doomed. When she realized that she could no longer live with Emmanuel, she returned to North America.

She went first to New York City where she worked as a caregiver to an older woman. After two years she sent for the children to join her. She wanted to return to Canada so she started applying for teaching jobs. Finally she got a job on Entry Island, a remote community in the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Isolated with her two younger children in a one-room school, which served as school and home, she taught, sewed and saved her money. Eventually, she was able to get a job in Montreal, where her oldest child was at boarding school, and unite the family there.

As a single mother, a term unknown at the time, Eileen concentrated on teaching and dressmaking to supplement her income as she was getting no support from Emmanuel. In spite of the long hours of work, Eileen managed to attend the parents’ night meetings and to help the children with their homework. She even squeezed in a bit of paid tutoring by running a literacy program in her home for one or two adults.

Eileen’s proudest moment was her oldest child’s acceptance at McGill University. At this time, Bell Canada was hiring, so Eileen decided to leave teaching to earn more money. A fearless and talented woman, she changed careers, working full-time at Bell in the accounting department and part-time with her sewing. In addition to clients from work who, impressed with the quality of her work, paid her to sew their clothes for vacation trips and weddings, she sewed for performers (see an example below).

Whenever she had a big consignment of garments, she would set up an assembly line, with her three children doing everything from hemming to sewing on buttons and clipping threads.

This industrious woman provided for her family, never claiming any kind of assistance and never complaining about the hardships of her life. After several years, Eileen remarried. Now a retired widow, she works with seniors through the continuing education department of two public school boards in Toronto. She quietly grieves for her son, who died in 1980, and proudly speaks of her two daughters, both of whom have graduate degrees.

Eileen says of her life:

At Bell Canada Montreal there were many who showed discrimination but I still applied for promotions whenever there were openings ... The interviewers were always impressed and invariably gave me the new job. I was always more educated than my supervisors and there was always tension which I managed never to see ... No matter what came up, I showed no emotion. I just kept plodding and doing my best. I was hired as a grade 4 worker ... I left as a grade 7 top worker in the statistical department. On one occasion I appealed to the union as I was acting for a person who had gone on pre-retirement leave and was given a salary for a grade 5 worker in the editor’s department. The appeal ended in my favour and I was given a cheque for $500 for the period I had acted, and I was given the job and the promotion.

I never looked for the meanings of the “Black jokes” which were aimed at ethnics because I felt these were from uneducated people and I maintained my dignity and commanded respect without being a snob.

I had come from a very respectful family. Father was a headmaster of a big boys’ school. Punishment was playing the piano for one hour or reading or learning a poem (my mother’s choice) and reciting it to her before the punishment could be lifted.

As an adult with this foundation, I could not behave in any other way than the one I knew. So coming to Canada, I did not find anyone of my own worth whom I could relate to and the “Canadians” I would think of with a similar background would not want the association. So I just did what I had to for my three children to make myself and my family as normal as possible. I never had time to sit and say, “Why am I in this position?” I always enjoyed whatever I had to do and that made me happy.

more to consider

Everyone talks about the next generation. But the fact is that women around the world are now responsible for the care and nurture of the next generation. Is that by nature, or by necessity, or both?

Why is it that more men than women walk away from looking after children?

Single moms have been around for centuries. They aren’t new. Yet very little has changed in what single moms and their children face – poverty, poor health care, lack of good food and clean water, housing, etc. If more women were in positions of power in government and institutions, how might that make a difference to single moms? if any?

Eileen Alfred is a determined, dedicated woman. One critical thing that made it possible for her to find work in Canada and establish her family was her own education. That education did not protect her from discrimination, but it gave her a foothold on the economic ladder. Her story is a reminder that for women to function in society and get some personal security, they must have access to resources like education. In parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women because the powerful understand that education will undermine their power. For one thing, educated women have more economic choices than uneducated women. Perhaps that means that women won’t be so content to be “just stay home” and serve their men and kids.

Public education in Canada has been around for less than 100 years. And there are still lots of barriers to education. In 1998, the media reported that women were enrolling in university in greater numbers than men! This was a cause for worry, not celebration. What was Canada coming to as a society and economy. You see, education is power.

resources for this story

books

  • Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience, by KEN ALEXANDER and AVIS GLAZE, Umbrella Press, ISBN: 1895642205. A history of Blacks in Canada and perspectives on Black nation-builders. | 1996
  • 300 Years of Black Women in Canadian History: circa 1700-1980, by ADRIENNE SHAD, Tiger Lily, volume 1, issue 2. An overview of the history of Black women in Canada. This is hard to find on its own, but it is included in this resource kit: A hands-on resource kit for students : Black Women in Canada: Past and Present, available from Green Dragon Press, 2267 Lake Shore Blvd., Suite 1009, Toronto, ON M8V 3X2 Email: equity.greendragonpress@sympatico.ca Phone: 1-800-305-2057
  • Some Black Women, by RELLA BRAITHWAITE and TESSA BENN-IRELAND, Sister Vision, ISBN: 0920813844. For profiles of Black women in Canada. | 1993

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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