Andria Babbington remembers flying to Canada from Jamaica at 17 years old to start a new life in a land foreign to her. “Once you get on the plane you think it’s wonderful, it must be better than home,” she said.
But in reality, her early life in Canada was not as rosy as she dreamed from the plane. “Everybody was struggling to get by,” she said.
Babbington, now a Queensville resident, moved in with her half-sister and started working in the hotel sector. “I missed home. I missed having my dad,” she said.
Coming to Canada in 1985, things were a little different, Babbington said. People told her the hotel was a great place to work. “At the back of the house it was mostly women of colour, mostly immigrants. There was no luxury at the back of the house. More lack of respect,” she said.
Babbington was shocked that management would talk to employees like they did. “I come from a community where you have to respect everyone,” she said. So she looked to see where she could make a difference and became the chief union steward at her hotel at age 19.
“I had no clue what the union was about,” she said.
But she liked helping her fellow workers. She worked at one hotel for 17 years. “As I continued mobilizing workers, at some point I decided I love helping people,” she said.
Babbington remembered getting a Welcome to Canada package from Immigration Services Canada when she arrived. While there was a lot of information in the package that was useful, there was nothing about how to handle discrimination and racism.
Babbington served on the Toronto & York Region Labour Council since 2004, and recently became the first Black woman to be its president.
“Like many others, I’ve had struggles in this country, working multiple jobs to make ends meet,” Babbington said.
Babbington said that people who live below the poverty line have born the brunt of the pandemic.
“We need to reach out to workers who think they don’t need a union and show them that the best way to have dignity in the workplace, the best way to retire with dignity, the best way to fight for your community is to have a union,” she said.
Women of colour were hugely impacted by the pandemic, Babbignton said. For some, it means they were laid off from the service industry, or dropped down to working one job instead of two.
“People are trying to survive,” she said.
Babbington doesn’t think a lot of Canadians understand the uphill battle new immigrants face working in these industries. She said there is the revolving door feeling that keeps the standards low for workers.
“The idea is that when you leave, another one who got off the flight looking for a better life is going to take it,” she said. While lots has changed since 1985, many new immigrants face the same challenges she faced.
Retiring labour council president John Cartwright said Babbington is the perfect person to fight for workers rights. “Andria has played a pivotal role in campaigns like labour law reform and Hotel Workers Rising. For the past eight years, she’s served as the labour council’s vice-president,” he said. “She knows the challenges that workers face.”
The pandemic has dramatically reduced Canada’s immigration numbers but York Region’s Welcome Centre is committed to providing support virtually, said Donna Hall, manager of newcomer employment services.
The centre has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association but the organizations are careful in naming how that support is offered.
“’Newcomer wellness’ is what they call it, not mental health because there is a stigma around it,” Hall said.
“They don’t have to be in extreme situation to be referred. It can be only just to talk.”
Dynamic and diverse, York Region remains an attractive place for new Canadians, Janice Babcock, a manager with the centre said.
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: For Canada Day, reporter Simon Martin wanted to tell the story of a newcomer to Canada who has settled in East Gwillimbury and their successes and the challenges they have faced.