Excerpt from This Spot of Ground: Spiritual Baptists in Toronto by Carol Duncan
From Chapter 1: “A Passport to Heaven’s Gate”
“Heaven’s Gate”: Canada in the North American and Caribbean Black Imaginary
References to “heaven” and “Canaan” in the religious experiences of Africans and their descendants in North America, especially in the United States during the antebellum period, have identified the North, in general, and Canada, in particular, as a land of freedom from enslavement. During the period between 1834 and 1865, when slavery ended in Canada and all other British territories but continued in the United States, British North America, in particular Upper Canada and Nova Scotia on the Atlantic Coast, became places where people who escaped from slavery in the United States sought refuge. Through the Underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and escape routes, the enslaved made their way into Canada. The communities built by these people and their descendants still survive today in southwestern Ontario and Nova Scotia (Shadd 1994).
In the contemporary twentieth-century discourse of Caribbean migration epitomized by phrases such as “going to Canada” or “going to America” or “going to England”, this historically older, notion of heaven as a place of salvation from earthly travails is also referenced. Included in this reference is a notion of heaven as a place in which economic and educational advancement can be pursued.
“A passport to heaven’s gate” can be seen as a symbol of the hopes and dreams represented by the journey to Canada. It also points to the liminal and potentially contradictory status of this journey. The voyage brings the traveller to the gate of heaven, itself a transitional point, thereby hinting, perhaps, that other travails await the traveller in order to enter into the heaven that lies beyond the gateway.
This song, introduced as it was from a Vincentian Christian tradition, may have arisen in circumstances in which “heaven” and the “passport” had meanings other than those I have suggested. As singer and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon has noted, in reference to the African-American sacred song tradition, “the songs are free” (Reagon 1997). By this phrase, Reagon means that the songs are open to multiple and, in many cases, simultaneous interpretations. Thus a “passport to heaven’s gate”, sung in a Spiritual Baptist church in the Caribbean in a differing social and political context than Toronto, could have an alternative meaning.
In the following excerpt from the sermon delivered by the archbishop on that September 1992 night, an interpretation was offered that locates the song in the present-day circumstances of immigrant Caribbean people living in Toronto. In the archbishop’s sermon, the metaphor of the passport to heavens gate was discussed with direct reference to the experience of migration to Canada:
“This [passport] is not the same as the Immigration people give you. This is the gift of the everlasting gate. Your job, your last money to make a car payment can be taken from you. Christ travelled. But I demand it of your young people, hold on to the vine!”
Thus the song and the archbishop’s explanation point to the experience of journeying spiritually, physically, socially, and politically that is encompassed in immigrating to Canada. The passport has several metaphorical resonances. First, it refers to religious practice as a point of reference that working class immigrant Caribbean people can utilize to overcome the hardships of everyday life. Second, the passport also references the historical legacy of travel that has brought African people to Canada through the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade, forced migrations through the slave trade, and escape from enslavement through the Underground Railroad.
In both the song and the archbishop’s statement there is an allusion to “heaven’s gate” as a space of survival and resistance in which dominant power relations, referred to as the taking away of “your job or money for a car payment,” are subverted by practitioners. “Heaven’s gate” also points to Canada as a “land of milk and honey” in the mythos of both escape from enslavement in the United States during the nineteenth century and as contemporary twentieth-century and twenty-first-century emigration from the Caribbean. The archbishop’s statement highlights the recognition that the life that working-class Caribbean people are “given” by the “Immigration people,” the representatives of the Canadian federal government, is one that is fraught with instability, powerlessness, and economic deprivation. Thus there is a linking of relationships between the state, individual life experience, the histories of slavery and emigration, and narratives of hope and liberation contained within this song and the archbishop’s statement.
A series of questions emerge when contemplating the significance of a “passport to heaven’s gate.” How do church members in the Spiritual Baptist Church in Canada make sense of their reality in the context of migration to Canada? Is Canada the paradise, the heaven of material culture, the mythical “heaven’s gate?” If the quest for liberation was freedom from oppression in the here and now under the colonial and slave regime, would emigration provide a material answer to this quest for freedom in contemporary times? Are these goals subverted and transformed by consumer culture and the acquisitions of material goods as lifestyle?
The new context, life in Toronto, represents a contradictory terrain of possibilities for Spiritual Baptist church members. On the one hand, Toronto and Canada represent new economic and educational possibilities for the immigrants themselves, as well as for their children and future generations. On the other hand, this new context is one in which all respondents reported experiences of racism, classism, and sexism. The vast majority of church members are women who come from working-class and poor backgrounds in the Caribbean. Many have working histories as domestic workers in private homes or as cleaners in larger institutions. Some of the women and men have managed through hard work, educational advance, and fortitude to achieve a better economic standard of living for themselves since coming to Canada in the late 1960s and 1970s. For others, economic hardship remains a day-to-day fact of life.