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The Founding College of the University of Toronto

A Pioneering Caribbean Spirit: Economist and author Dorel Callender (BA 1959 UC) reflects on her life and legacy


By Yvonne Palkowski

As a Black female immigrant studying at University College in the 1950s, Dorel (Hay) Callender (BA 1959 UC; MA 1962 U of T) was a trailblazer. Now 88 and retired from a distinguished career in economics, she continues to inspire others with her remarkable energy, now focused on her family and passion to preserve the culinary traditions of the Caribbean.

Born in Jamaica as the eldest of six children and the only female, Callender was perhaps destined to be a groundbreaker. As a teenager, she was drawn to math, physics, and chemistry, something she made clear to her headmistress at Wolmer’s High School for Girls. But when classes started and she discovered that she had been enrolled in geography, English, and religion instead, her reaction was thus: "I was furious," she says. "What was I going to do with those subjects? I didn't want to be a minister's wife or a preacher.”

Callender left that school and enrolled in a technical program to learn typing, so she could get a job in order to finance the kind of education that she wanted. I finished my typing course in five weeks,” she says, but jobs were scarce. After applying to several postings to no avail, she decided to write the civil service exams, in which she placed second in the entire country. At the time, Jamaica was preparing for independence from British rule and government roles were increasingly available.

Despite her impressive exams results and the plethora of opportunities in the civil service, Callender was unable to land a position there, something she attributes to sexism. It's different for women these days, but boy was it hard then. And we pushed up doors, knocked on doors, and we were pushed out… They didn't give me a job. I couldn't find a job. And all the men behind me had jobs,” she says.

Callender eventually got a position in the Government’s People’s Co-Operative Bank as a teller, which led to a role as a clerk in charge of the office of the chief minster at the time, the Honourable Alexander Bustermante. While her prospects had improved, she was still a teenager and had not forgotten her ultimate goal of obtaining a higher education. From the minute I got to the chief minister’s office, I was going to go to the University of Toronto, and it took me until I was 23,” she says.

She used her savings from that job to come to Canada; her tenacity and hard work had finally paid off. Callender arrived in Toronto and enrolled as a mature student at University College, where she lived in a single room in Cody House, Whitney Hall. I didn't know anybody in Canada, nobody at all,” she says.

With her trademark resilience, she got into the swing of campus life, taking courses in political science, economics, philosophy, and Spanish. In her classes, she was heartened to meet many fellow students from the Caribbean, including a Grenadian named Charles Victor” Callender (BA 1959 UC; MA 1960 U of T; PhD 1962 U of T), who ultimately became her husband.

Bonding over their similar cultures and shared immigrant experience, Dorel and Victor were among seven mature students from the Caribbean who hung out together, holding casual study and debate sessions. "Then we found out that there were fraternities and groups and organizations all around, and then we said, 'Why not form our own organization?' And that's how we came to have the West Indian Student Association (WISA)," she says.

With proceeds from the nominal dues charged by the association, they held fêtes, or parties, twice a year, where guests snacked on crackers and sardines and dared to dance under the limbo bar to the rhythm of Caribbean music. But WISA was not all fun and games. It was a serious group whose focused, high-minded officers organized, among other things, a visit to Toronto by Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados to give talks on the West Indies Federation, a short-lived political union that existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"The Caribbean Islands were getting together for the federation, which floundered and failed while we were in college. But we all believed in confederation, and we thought we were a little mini-federation,” she says. It should be no surprise, then, that the founding members of WISA, which operates to this day, went on to make noteworthy contributions to society.

Victor and Dorel Callender
Victor Callender and Dorel (Hay) Callender upon their graduation from University College, University of Toronto,1959. Photograph courtesy of Dorel Callender.

Dorel and Victor married a week after graduating from University College in 1959. Victor had received a Commonwealth Scholarship to do his master’s and doctorate in economics at U of T and to help make ends meet, Dorel started looking for a job to supplement funds from the award. Unfortunately, she faced barriers in her search that were by then all too familiar. "I had problems with racial and sexual discrimination," she says.

She turned to Professor Vincent Wheeler Bladen, an economist and dean of arts at the time, for guidance. “He was very protective of me,” says Callender, who had graduated in the top tier of her economics and political science class. Soon, she landed a position as head of the economics division in the office of the premier of Ontario at the time, the Honourable Leslie Frost.

Callender continued working as she pursued her master’s in economics at U of T and eventually went on to head Jamaica’s first economic division in the foreign ministry. She was the first woman to serve on the board of the Inter-American Development Bank and was the first woman advisor to the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. In recognition of her tremendous contributions, she was honoured with the Order of Distinction from the government of Jamaica.

In addition to her master’s dissertation, which explores transportation as an economic entity, Callender is the author of three economics volumes dating from her time in the Ontario premier’s office in the 1960s, as well as one title on a completely different topic—Caribbean cuisine. In 2011, she published A Caribbean Mom’s Table, a compilation of traditional and modern Caribbean recipes. When Victor and I got married, he was from residence and I was from residence and he said, ‘Look, I'm not eating any more Canadian food,’” she laughs.

The book contains more than 200 recipes diligently collected over the course of 50 years from various sources, including newspaper clippings, hand-written notes, and oral tradition. A labour of love, it is dedicated to her late husband, with whom she has two children and who passed away in 2000 after a distinguished career at the International Money Fund (IMF).

Victor Callender wanted to ensure that future generations could enjoy the same Caribbean dishes he did and the book "is a sort of promise to him that I would, that we would keep Caribbean food going,” she says. Callender is currently working on a related project that would see traditional Jamaican food protected by UNESCO.

In honour of her late husband, in 2011 and with the help of her daughter, Dorel established the Victor Callender Memorial Award, which rewards excellence in University College students born or raised in the Caribbean. Callender recalls her husband’s dedication to excellence in everything from academics to his work and sports. “He was particularly proud of his U of T letter in tennis,” she says.

As one of the first Black economists at the IMF, Victor Callender oversaw the entrance of several new independent African nations into the organization. The couple also closely followed developments in their native Caribbean and upon request, the IMF twice provided Victor’s services to the region, to strengthen the Central Bank of Jamaica and to re-organize the government of Grenada after the 1983 invasion.

“We always appreciated the financial aid we received from UC,” Callender says.  “And I hope the Victor Callender Memorial Award is helping to perpetuate the pioneering Caribbean spirit that flourished at the College more than 60 years ago.”