Where to find a ‘Little Jamaica’ in Canada

For generations of Caribbean immigrants, one Toronto neighborhood has provided a soft landing. Today, against all odds, it continues to flourish.

The last time I visited Randy’s Takeout, there was no line to enter. For the tiny, family-run, counter-service shop, it was a minor miracle.

The restaurant was famous for its Jamaican patties, and, for more than 40 years, people from across Toronto had flocked to this corner of Eglinton Avenue West for one (or dozens) of the hot, freshly baked, golden pastry crescents stuffed with beef, curry chicken, or vegetables.

That weekday there was only one customer in front of us when my husband and I wandered into the shop. A sign on the wall read “Zero tolerance for disrespectful behavior.” Any descendant of West Indies parents, as I am, will understand: Jumping right into an order without a “good afternoon” won’t make you any friends.

The other cardinal rule: Know what you want. The Jamaican woman behind the counter had no patience for the indecisive. “Afternoon,” I said, when it was our turn at the counter. “How are you doing today?” And she smiled.

This kind of cultural connection is exactly why I love this neighborhood. For Jamaicans, Eglinton Avenue West has been, since the 1950s, more than just a collection of restaurants and stores connected by heritage. So-called Little Jamaica has held out the soft landing immigrants appreciated on arrival; it has become the place their children have returned to when our souls sought the comfort of community.

In 2021, Toronto City Council voted unanimously to designate Little Jamaica as a “heritage conservation district understudy.” The designation means the neighborhood can be preserved under the Ontario Heritage Act, which offers some protection from future development, gentrification, and the kind of business displacement that has happened in the past.

Unfortunately, the designation hasn’t come in time for some businesses. Soon after my last visit to Randy’s, it shut its doors for good.

Like the home they left behind

People of Caribbean descent make up more than 346,000 of Toronto’s population of just over 2.9 million, according to the 2016 census. Jamaicans comprise almost two-thirds of that. We are dispersed throughout the city, but there is no question that Eglinton Avenue West—where flags boasting Jamaica’s black, green, and gold colors hang in windows, and lilting accents enliven the street—is the heart of Toronto’s Jamaican Canadian community.

The area—bordered by Allan Road to the east and Keele Street to the west—has been a refuge for new Caribbean immigrants for decades.

(Why Black homeownership thrives in this special pocket of New York City.)

It’s one of the original Black communities in Canada, a haven for enslaved Blacks who fled America to the north. While Italians were (and remain) among the immigrant populations who call the area home, in the early 1960s there was an influx of Jamaicans as part of the West Indian Domestic Scheme

The program, which ran between 1955 and 1967, brought approximately 3,000 women from the Caribbean to Canada to work as domestic helpers, with the promise of landed immigrant status after a year. Many of the women who came in on the program weren’t domestics in their homelands but seized the opportunity to gain Canadian citizenship and eventually sponsor their families. Most of the Jamaicans coming in at that time settled in and around what would become Little Jamaica.

In the 1970s a new surge, made possible by relaxed immigration rules championed by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, included my parents. My dad came first, following his older sister to the Eglinton Avenue West strip. My mother followed a year later, displaced him in his sister’s home (he got an apartment in the neighborhood that they’d eventually share), and married him a month later.

When they talk about the community back then, it sounds idyllic. Stores carried foods from home: yellow yams, tins of ackee, buckets of salted beef perfect for soups and stews. Rhythms they recognized floated out of open windows. (Both Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff are said to have been among the international reggae artists who frequented the area on visits to the city). And most of their neighbors looked like them or shared their culture. It was an area that felt like the home they’d left behind, and for my parents it offered enough of a foundation that, a year after they married, they had me.

A little Jamaica

When my parents talk about the neighborhood, they speak mostly of the positives. When I pry, they tell me about the racism they faced within and outside the area. They were able to secure their first apartment only because my aunt had lived there previously and knew the superintendent. And their dreams of owning a house of their own were initially crushed by real estate agents who said the safe, well-maintained neighborhoods they aspired to, such as suburban Thornhill, would “never sell to a Black man.”

(Meet the legendary community that fought for its freedom in Jamaica.)

In the end, they did move north, where they chased—and caught—the immigrant dream: homes that were successively bigger, perfect for their growing family, and neighborhoods with schools that treated higher education as if it were a guarantee.

Despite growing up in those suburbs—first North Toronto and eventually Markham—I consistently returned to Eglinton Avenue in my youth for many of the same reasons my parents loved it.

At Monica’s Beauty Salon & Cosmetic, I knew I could find hair products that evaded me in the whiter suburbs. I knew the record stores like Jay Dee’s would have the music I wanted to hear. And there was no question that I’d eat well.

There was a joy that you felt just walking the strip. Reggae and soca music, at decibels I never heard anywhere but my parent’s basement or Caribana, were the norm. Tam-wearing, dreadlocked men perched on windowsills next to oil barrels converted into barbecues.

Carole Rose, co-owner of Rap’s restaurant, the first Jamaican restaurant on the strip, remembers those ’80s heydays too. “This is where everybody would come,” she says. “It was all here, and it was all supported by Jamaicans.”

Rap’s has been in its spot on the south side of Eglinton Avenue West since 1982. It was created by Carole’s husband, Horace, after the producer and artist manager realized that once shows were over, it was often too late to find good food. Rap’s would stay open until 5 a.m., serving everything from soup to jerk chicken to curry goat. 

Musicians, including Johnny Osbourne, Sly and Robbie, and Steve Harvey, have all found their way to the joint in the wee hours of the morning to partake in some Jamaican Canadian hospitality. (The area is so beloved in the reggae music industry that in 2014 the city recognized the history with a mural proclaiming the laneway just east of Rap’s “Reggae Lane.”)

But in the mid-nineties, things took a turn. The recession diminished the possibility of ownership for many of the Black families who were there, and skyrocketing rents forced business owners from the neighborhood.

Now, ongoing construction on a rapid transit subway line being built along Eglinton Avenue West has made it difficult for people to access many of the shops, as well as disrupted the neighborly flow.

“It puts a dent in the community,” says Rose.

Preserving heritage

Jamaica’s coat of arms bears the slogan “out of many, one people”—referring to the fact that, while an accent will often give it away, being Jamaican doesn’t mean you are Black. Generations of colonization and immigration have resulted in a mosaic of white, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese communities calling the island home. Likewise, Toronto’s Little Jamaica has always been a racially diverse area.

“What I am seeing are the kids that grew up here and are adults now,” says Rose, marveling at the neighborhood’s lasting relevance generations later. “They are bringing their kids. They're coming to us and saying, ‘we were here back in the day. We used to come here at nighttime after the club.’ Or ‘we used to come by to pick up lunch,’ and I'm like, wow! It just blows your mind.”

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

This story originally published on April 14, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

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