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Carolyn Cooper | O, Canada, no more salt fish!

Published:Friday | July 7, 2017 | 12:00 AM

On the 4th of July, I attended the Canada 150 celebration hosted by the High Commission. As I observed the display of nationalism, I kept wondering about the people whose "home and native land" had been captured by Europeans. When did their Canadian history begin? Are they full citizens in "the true north strong and free"?

The name 'Canada' comes from the Iroquois word 'Kanata', meaning village or settlement. The Iroquois comprise six nations: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Incidentally, the popular 'mohawk' hairstyle does not originate with the Mohawk people. It's from the Pawnee nation in Oklahoma.

The Iroquois settled around the Great Lakes and their vast territory included Ontario, Quebec, New York State, Virginia, Kentucky, the Ohio valley and much more. The border between the US and Canada is, historically, a figment of the European imagination. Much like Donald Trump's mythical wall!

The Canada 150 commemoration started with breakfast. Ackee and salt fish was on the menu. How did we end up with a 'national' dish, the main ingredients of which are not local? Since the ancestors of most of us came from 'foreign', I suppose it's appropriate for our national dish to also be imported. Ackee came from West Africa and salt fish from North America. The word 'ackee' is probably from the Kru language, 'akee' or the Akan language, 'akye fufo'.

The scientific name 'Blighia sapida' acknowledges Captain Bligh who, in 1793, took the ackee from Jamaica to London's Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew for scientific study. Bligh, who survived the famous Mutiny on The Bounty, also transported 2,126 breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. Only 678 of them survived. Bligh delivered 66 plants to the Bath Botanic Gardens in St Thomas.

Cynics will say that's the true, true Jamaican foodie story. We love foreign food: All of those fast foods that are killing us quickly. Why couldn't our national dish have been fresh fish and bammy? Cassava, which originated in Brazil and Paraguay, has spread throughout the Caribbean. It is a constant reminder of the owners of the yard who discovered Columbus squatting on their land.




Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck made an unfortunate statement when he addressed the gathering. He said that Jamaican Maroons "resettled" in Nova Scotia. On feel-good occasions like this, it is so easy to rewrite history in order to be nice to one's host. It's an injustice for the minister to suggest that Maroons happily settled in Canada of their own free will.

What actually happened is that approximately 550 Trelawny Maroons - men, women and children - were banished from Jamaica in 1796 following the Second Maroon War. The planter-dominated Jamaican Government so wanted to get rid of the Maroons and capture their land that they actually paid Nova Scotia for their upkeep.

Nova Scotia's lieutenant governor welcomed them. It was not a case of goodwill. After the War of Independence in the US, African-Americans who had fought on the side of the British were promised a better life in Canada. They were scammed. More than 1,000 of these black Loyalists fled to British Sierra Leone. Nova Scotia's workforce was depleted. The Maroons were supposed to take up the slack.

Two shiploads arrived in Halifax in June and July when the weather was relatively mild. In the winter, the Maroons started to carry on bad. They wanted to return to Jamaica. They couldn't stand the extremely cold weather. On a visit to Halifax last October to give a lecture at Dalhousie University, I visited Citadel Hill, where some of the Maroons were employed to rebuild the fortifications of the city.

The majority of them were pushed into subsistence farming. And they rebelled. They had no intention of becoming cheap labour. Eventually, most of the Maroons were sent to Sierra Leone in 1800. And some of these returned to Jamaica in 1841. Those who stayed in Sierra Leone became part of the multi-ethnic Creole community that was often at war with indigenous Africans. It's a complicated story of crisscrossing family lines.




Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are the two Canadian provinces from which salt fish first came to Jamaica. Like breadfruit, it was cheap food for enslaved Africans in the early days. The expression 'salt fish fi shingle house' confirms how inexpensive it used to be. Not so these days. Salt fish is gourmet food, more costly than fresh fish. And it now comes to Jamaica from Norway.

But it is Canada that fed our long-lasting addiction to salt fish. The high salt content is deadly. It contributes to high blood pressure. Just one ounce of salt fish contains 1,991mg of sodium, nearly 83 per cent of the recommended maximum daily sodium intake. We do boil out the salt, but a lot of it remains. Like the legacies of history!

For Independence 55, we should select a much more healthy national dish. If the minister of culture, gender affairs, entertainment and sport can arbitrarily cancel the extremely popular Festival Song Contest and allow a committee to pick some songs for a commemorative album, without any consultation with the public, it's clear that tradition is as dead as a victim of high blood pressure. And, this time, we can't blame Canadian salt fish.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and