Photo of a colourful wall mural with various people on it. A man with a microphone stands out on the mural off to the left, and in the centre is a man with a large beard. A blue sky is visible in the background.

Living history: community action

20th and 21st Century Little Jamaica

Photo of a colourful wall mural with various people on it. A man with a microphone stands out on the mural off to the left, and in the centre is a man with a large beard. A blue sky is visible in the background.

Reggae Lane Mural, Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto, September 22, 2020.

Photo of a colourful outside wall mural with a woman in the centre of the piece. The top of the mural reads, "Welcome to Reggae Lane". Cars are parked in front of the mural.

“Welcome to Reggae Lane” mural, Eglinton Ave. West, Toronto, September 3, 2020.

A group of tour participants on the sidewalk in front of store shops listening to a woman in a yellow dress with a microphone.

Carol Brown guides tour participants through a walking tour of Little Jamaica, Eglinton West, June 30, 2022.

Wagwan Toronto

The community in Toronto continued to grow significantly into the 20th and 21st century with over 300,000 people of Caribbean descent living in the city, a mix of recent immigrants and Canadian-born. Their impact on the popular and urban culture in Toronto is highlighted in slang, food and music.

Patois is a common feature on the streets of Little Jamaica and a ‘Wagwan’ is not uncommon in many spaces across the city. Toronto music titans like Drake use the rhythms and sounds of Jamaican language and music to great acclaim and success.

However, the neighbourhood that is Little Jamaica has seen significant changes to its demographic community. Caribana, one of the largest and longest-running Caribbean carnival celebrations in North America began in 1967 as a gift from the community to the city of Toronto. The Junior Carnival or Kiddie Carnival started on Eglinton West but in recent years has moved to other parts of the city because of the neighbourhood’s association with crime.

Crime and Prejudice

Years of drug and gang violence in the area during the late 1990s drove many out of the neighbourhood as residents. The suburbs east (Scarborough) and west (Etobicoke) of Little Jamaica became desirable, and many families moved to these areas during this time. But they still patronized the businesses on the Eglinton strip. 

In 1996, a drive-by shooting was connected to drug activity on Eglinton West. Residents and City officials bemoaned the crime rate on Eglinton West in local papers. In a 1996 Globe and Mail article, John Nunziata, then a Liberal MP whose constituency office was on Eglinton Avenue, described the area as “Metro Harlem.” He later clarified that his statement was “unfortunate” but his way of saying that “it’s becoming Metro Toronto’s Harlem in the sense that it’s a crime centre.”

Despite this image, the community in Little Jamaica continued to rally, supporting neighbourhood members and other Caribbeans in the city.

G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories

Elaine Lloyd-Robinson has been working with youth and adults in Little Jamaica and other predominantly Black and immigrant-occupied neighbourhoods across the GTA. Elaine was a young mother who experienced homelessness before moving into Toronto Public Housing.

Eliane believes that young men and women like herself in so-called Ghetto neighbourhoods like Little Jamaica need support through education and storytelling to reach their full potential. Her non-profit organization, G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories, which stands for “Getting Higher Education to Teach Others”, changes the narrative on Ghetto neighbourhoods.

Listen to Elaine Lloyd-Robinson’s inspiration and vision behind her organization, G.H.E.T.T.O Stories

 

Reggae Lane

Reggae Lane is an initiative of Toronto Laneway Project. It officially received its title in 2015 with help from City Councillor Josh Colle, members of the Eglinton Avenue West community, the York-Eglinton BIA, and members of the reggae music scene in Toronto. The initiative honours and celebrates the rich musical history of the Eglinton Avenue West neighbourhood. Adrian Hayles, the artist behind the mural, is a longtime resident of Little Jamaica and has contributed his talent to several murals in Toronto including two 70-metre-high music murals on Yonge Street.

Hayles is also a DJ, his father was a DJ who visited the area to pick up records for his show in the 1990s. When he began working in the laneway, Hayles noticed the homeless population living there needed support and in 2015, he started Tempo. Tempo supports men and women experiencing homelessness by providing them with hygiene products, naloxone kits and friendly faces, recognizing them as important members of the community.

Listen to Adrian Hayles discuss his connection to the Little Jamaica community and his work on the Reggae Lane Project.