At first sight, Port of Spain and St Catharines, Ontario, couldn’t be more different.
About 4,000 kms north of Port of Spain, St Catharines is frozen during winter, and even as the eighth largest urban area in the province of Ontario, dwarfs its “twin city” in area and population.
What the two cities have in common, Philip Atteck – the Trinidadian responsible for twinning the two cities – once said, are the warmth and vibrancy of their people.
St Catharines (frequently misspelt and wrongly given an apostrophe), is in the Niagara Region and is one of its least populous with about 140,000 residents. A sizeable minority include Caribbean migrants and generational migrants, who have found comfort in one of Canada’s many welcoming cities.
The flag of Port of Spain was recently hoisted by St Catharines mayor Mat Siscoe, at St Catharines City Hall, to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the twinning, an arrangement formalised in 1968.
Twinning began after World War II when Japan, led by survivors of the catastrophic Hiroshima bombings, reached out to several European countries and cities, and approached the UN with an idea to “mundialise,” (from the word French word mondial, meaning "global”), with an end goal to prevent such human-caused tragedies from recurring.
About two decades later, in 1965, Richard Hilker, a manager at Air Canada, asked Atteck, sales manager for Radio Guardian, to tour Canada to promote the Caribbean as a tourist destination for Canadians. Atteck travelled across the country, and with the support of donations and promotional materials, led a successful campaign to boost the Caribbean’s visibility as a tourist destination.
During his tour, Atteck visited St Catharines, and the idea of twinning St Catharines and Port of Spain was conceived. Twinning committees were formed, and the cities officially twinned in 1968, embracing the UN Charter of Human Rights.
The arrangement was formalised in August, 1968 when Hamilton Holder, shortly after becoming mayor of Port of Spain, officially declared Port of Spain a “mundialised city.” St Catharines mayor Mackenzie Chown was in Trinidad for the ceremony and declared his support for the newly twinned cities.
Holder pledged on behalf of Port of Spain residents to “observe and uphold the universal declaration of human rights by the UN,” and “to join the rest of the world in the pursuit of peace, justice and friendly co-operation.”
From there, the St Catharines Twinning Association was established.
Atteck, who has been credited as the inspiration for the popular tourist attraction Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, and served as honorary chairman of the association, died in 2009.
The twinning arrangement led to a number of benefits, including free surgical treatment for Trinidadian children in Toronto, and the Rotary Club of St Catharines outfitting an operating theatre in Port of Spain. Medical collaboration also occurred, with Canadian doctors working in Trinidad.
The twinning fostered cultural exchanges, as people visited each other's cities and citizens from Port of Spain travelled to St Catharines for educational opportunities. Brock University facilitated field trips to Trinidad, and a scholarship was established in 1993 for a Trinidadian student at Brock. In 2008, Brock University established a full-tuition Twinning Scholarship for Trinidadian students, with several recipients graduating. A memorial for Atteck was placed at Brock University's International Building.
Newsday spoke with the association’s president Dave Peters, who said although annual activities have been affected in the past few years because of the covid19 pandemic, they have returned in full swing to bring the best of Port of Spain culture to St Catharines to commemorate the 55th anniversary.
Peters said there have been documented benefits of the linkage between the two cities. He referred to a letter written by a Canadian policeman, who visited and worked in Port of Spain for a month during the 1970s. The policeman wrote that he had learnt more about cultural sensitivity in race relations in one month in Port of Spain than he could ever be taught in any classroom.
“So that was such a powerful experience to have that exchange and to be able to understand how the police in Port of Spain were handling the multicultural aspects (of the community)...”
St Catharines is regarded as particularly significant in terms of Afro-Canadian history.
American abolitionist Harriet Tubman lived there in the late 1850s, having led her family to a community of formerly enslaved people, including some of her other relatives. Tubman led many enslaved people to a church called Salem Chapel in St Catharines after the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed for the capture and return of enslaved people to their “masters” within US territories. The church still stands and has been designated a historical landmark by the Canadian government.
Today, the city and the wider region are regarded as particularly open to migration and diversity, and are home to a significant Caribbean minority.
Apart from the more formal arrangements, the association and its members routinely organise social events, such as cultural shows, pop-up markets and seasonal events.
It only has some 65 formal members, but includes many non-members in its activities. Peters said the association is always open to new members.
High on the agenda is its Parang in Niagara 2023, scheduled for December, a mini-festival of music, food, shopping and other activities.