Laura Tanna, Contributor
Jamaican-born Bromley Armstrong's union work, fighting to improve workers' rights in Canada, did not go unnoticed by a fellow Jamaican. Armstrong remembers: "Ken Sterling was brought in by the United Steel Workers of America to be trained on union autonomy. He invited me to come to Jamaica to become an organiser with the National Workers' Union (NWU). He was the island supervisor of the NWU and a member of parliament in the Norman Washington Manley government. I came and had an interview in 1956 but I declined. I couldn't live on what they were going to give me, that was one of the reasons and the other is my vision of Jamaica was too progressive. They took me to all kinds of functions. They had just built Mona (Housing Development). I had relatives in Porus who still had to go to a standpipe to get water. No electricity. No nothing. This minister of government said to me: "So what do you think of Jamaica so far? There are over 200 homes built here."
I said: "Look, I'm not impressed. When I come to Jamaica and I go 40 or 50 miles out of Kingston, I want to see all the amenities that you have in Mona in those areas."
He said to me: "What the hell you want from us?" He got very annoyed and upset with me. I figured if this was the attitude, I can't take it because my thinking had gone beyond the political system in Jamaica."
This feistiness led Armstrong to undertake a number of difficult and innovative occupations over the years. In 1956, he left his factory job at Massey Harris and joined Wholesale Typewriters, a company in which he rose into a management position as it developed into a major business renamed Commodore Business Machines. By 1961, he was asked to supervise setting up a factory and assembly in Kingston. But once again, this Jamaican-born Canadian of Afro-Scottish ancestry - his maternal grandfather was of the Heron clan - found it difficult to accept the racial and class discrimination here.
"I had problems with wages. I was going to spoil the economy of Jamaica because I was paying too much. I had problems with employees. You got to talk to them regularly, try to educate them that you have to produce. You have to work and learn to live together. I had problems with people discriminating against each other.
This one didn't like this one because he or she is Indian or this one is working in the factory and I am working in the office. I said to myself: 'What the hell have you been doing in Canada all these years fighting racism and discrimination and I come back to my own country and what have I got thrown in my face? All of these racist people. What's wrong with you guys? I see them out on the street: 'Don't talk to me.' They work at the same place but don't talk. And we have not given up yet on this in Jamaica."
"I went back and quit the job. 'Til now the owners of the company think I was nuts and told me, 'You could have been a millionaire.' But I wasn't made to be a millionaire. Somebody who worked like me is in Ireland now in a villa. If that is what the Lord wanted for me, I would be there. It was not my calling."
Although Armstrong didn't know what he was going to do, his attitude was: "There's lots of snow in Canada and there's a thing in Jamaica called snowball. I'll buy a bottle of syrup and I will put it on the snow and I'll suck snowballs for the winter!" Instead, he took up an offer to try his hand at selling insurance, went to a course for six weeks and had his medical. He relates: "The doctor shook my hand and said: 'Mr Armstrong, congratulations. You are the first black man I've done a medical on! I wish you all the best in what you're doing.'
"I went to a function on Friday night to meet my so-called colleagues and they gave out awards. The runner-up to the awards came out onto the balcony and told me that was the second year in a row that he was the runner-up so he couldn't take that.
"I said: 'My friend, I start on Monday and you have to worry about me because I ain't second to nobody.' That was the end of me. I got a registered letter the next day, Saturday at my house, telling me: 'Don't show up on Monday.' And sending me back my cheque, the amount of money for my licence. That was how I entered into the insurance business.
"I went to a friend in the labour movement from France and he sent me to the credit union people that had a co-op. They interviewed me. Gave me an aptitude test for an hour - (passed with) flying colours. They're not happy because I'm black; they've not seen a black insurance agent in their life. They sent me to a company for two weeks to be evaluated. After two weeks they call me in: "We got the report - flying colours. Whatever you do, you will be successful. But we're worried. There are three things they say about you. You're very ambitious. You're very opinionated. When you get an opinion you won't give it up easily and the third was colour.' How would I react when I go to a customer? Suppose when I ring the doorbell they come and see a black man and they slam the door?
"I said: 'Look, I'm not stupid. I am me. If I'm representing me it's a different thing. But if I'm out representing you, a company, I know I have to conduct myself to the best way thinking in terms of the company. If somebody comes to me and says: 'Goodbye. I don't want to see you standing on my doorstep.' I'll just go about my business and say goodbye, good luck to them.'
First black insurance agent
"I became the first black insurance agent in Canada. I worked for Cooperators Insurance for nine years, then left and became an insurance broker in my own business, working out of my mother's house (where he had started living), but it was so successful I had to rent a store front." Armstrong's mother had had a battle to get into Canada, despite having four sons residing and working there.
Armstrong's first marriage in 1949 to a Canadian of African-American heritage ended after 22 years, partially due to cultural differences. Armstrong is proud of their four children, all professionals. "My eldest son, Bromley, is married and works for the Federal Government of Canada. My oldest girl, Linda, does her own business in water purification. She has just come back from India and Pakistan trying to get them fresh drinking water. She's an actress and a writer. I have a son - an electrician in Nova Scotia who loves the life out there - named after my brother, Everald. Then I have another son named after a personal friend whose name is Malcolm, who was a native person."
Remarried a Jamaican
Armstrong says: "I remarried in 1972 and this is the best part of my life. I married a Jamaican, somebody I knew from I was a little boy, whose family and my family were very close because my mother delivered all the siblings, her two brothers and herself. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. It rejuvenated my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would marry to her because to me she was like a young sister. We've been happily married now 35, going on 36 years and have a daughter, Lana, doing a master's in social work at the University of Toronto."
His wife and he bonded during the tumultuous '70s after they built their insurance brokerage firm together, when he became deeply involved in controversial social issues after being appointed a human rights commissioner in 1975. He relates: "Within a couple weeks of my being appointed, the white supremacists smashed my office up. They threw a rock through my plate glass window, a big rock with a ticket on there with a monkey, an elastic band on it, carrying a suitcase full of bananas. That was my one-way ticket back to Africa. This monkey was dressed in a three-piece suit.
"We have them in Toronto: the Western Guard, the Nazi Party and the British People's League, another racist group. My wife lived through that to the point that we were publishing a newspaper, The Islander, at the same time. Everything I did, she was always there. She's a very reserved type of person. It bothered her because people would come and be afraid to come back to that office because 'they're going to burn the place down, bomb it' and it UPSET her. That was very, very difficult.
'Prepare To Die!'
"About a month later, she came in and picked up this letter, red splattered all over it. That's supposed to indicate blood. She opened it and "Prepare To Die!" That was for me. She busted out in tears. About a month later, I got a stick of dynamite in the mail, delivered by the mailman in a brown manila envelope wrapped up in paper towel. Then the police got serious. They went out and arrested about 29 people that night. So, you know, you go through that period of frustration? I got very ill, my nerves cracked (which affected his eyesight). Now my wife is pregnant. I'm running three things: the insurance brokerage; the newspaper and on the Human Rights Commission. Then I realised the kind of wife I had. I never believed she had the intestinal fortitude she had because she came to the hospital every day to see me. She ran that office. All I did was sign cheques. She paid all the bills, made sure everything went well. I was amazed."
More extraordinary experiences
Bromley Armstrong recovered and went on to live through more extraordinary experiences, of which there are too many to relate here. In this interview, I've concentrated on those most directly related to Jamaica, while indicating some of the reasons he is so highly regarded in Canada for the pioneering work he did there in human rights, and not just on behalf of black people. His two closest friends, made in his early union days, were Dennis McDermott, an Irish immigrant, and Malcolm Raynard, a Native Indian First Person Canadian, from another group whose rights Armstrong championed. Because Jamaica is often criticised for the treatment of gay people in this country, I asked Armstrong about his attitude towards homosexuality. He answered: "Every human being has a right to life and liberty. Every single person in this world. Their lifestyle is not my lifestyle but they have a right to their own way of life. I believe in justice and freedom for every single human being in this world."
In parting, Armstrong gave me a copy of his memoirs, Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes written with Sheldon Taylor, published by Vitabu Publishing Ontario 2000 (vitabu is Kiswahili for books) firstname.lastname@example.org. A well-researched and very well-written book, aside from the occasionally distracting use of commas, Taylor's placement of Armstrong's achievements within a rich historical context hugely assists us in understanding the importance of Armstrong's contribution to Canada, and to Jamaicans in the diaspora. It should be made available in libraries throughout Jamaica.