Caribbean Vibes In The Hills

Caribbean culture – from food to music and style – has made a home in Headwaters for newcomers from the Islands, their families and longtime residents alike.

September 8, 2023 | | Community

When May Denhart, better known as Mrs. D, moved to Canada in 1982 from Guyana, she brought with her all the tastes and traditions of her native cuisine, plus the skills she had learned in the kitchen from the age of six. Guyanese food, heavily influenced by the lush landscapes of South America and a long list of ethnicities, is a mélange of rich flavours, tropical ingredients and spices. After living in Dundalk, then Brampton, Mrs. D and her family moved to Mulmur in 2011. That’s when she decided to make food her career, opening Mrs. D Jerk, Roti and Pastry in Mono next to the Esso station on Highway 10, just north of Orangeville. It quickly became the place where people would stop to fill up their bellies with roti wraps when they filled up their cars with gas.

“Roti has always been my number one dish,” Mrs. D says as the smell of simmering curry wafts through the air and my stomach gurgles with hunger.

May Denhart of Mrs. D Jerk, Roti and Pastry. Photo by Pete Paterson.

On the morning I visit her for a chat, her husband, Donald, is quietly watching a cricket match on television and she has just begun cooking her house specials. Other than roti she also offers peas and rice, jerk chicken and beef patties, all made from scratch, including the soft, silky roti skins. When I ask whether the restaurant was well received when it opened, she shrugs, “People just walk in the door.”

Right on cue, the door opens and an older gentleman with blue eyes and silver hair comes in. Without hesitating to look at the menu on the wall behind her, he asks, “Do you have goat roti today?” “Of course I have goat roti,” Mrs. D replies with a sweet smile, and disappears into the kitchen. I glance at my watch – it’s only 10:30 and customers are already descending.

When Mrs. D started, hers was one of the few West Indian restaurants in the area. But a lot has changed in the last two decades as Headwaters has become home to people from an increasingly diverse variety of backgrounds.

Statistics Canada reports most Caribbean immigration locally and across the country comes from the nations of Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad, in that order. (In the 2021 census, about 4,330 residents of Caledon and Dufferin identified as Jamaican, Trinidadian or Guyanese, with more than half of them born in one of those countries.)

The Caribbean region is home to many islands and coastal countries surrounding the Caribbean Sea.

Still, you might also have a neighbour from Haiti, Barbados, Saint Lucia or Saint Vincent, to name just a few of the many islands and coastal countries surrounding the Caribbean Sea. The region is generally considered to be bordered on the north by the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Straits and the Northern Atlantic, and by Central and South America to the west and south – although nations outside that area, such as The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, are also considered Caribbean.

Now, in addition to restaurants like Mrs. D’s, other kinds of Caribbean-owned businesses are opening across Headwaters, whether it’s a driving school, food truck, beauty salon, café or restaurant. Shelburne alone has all these and more.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says litigation lawyer and author Steve Anderson, who has Jamaican roots (he was the only one of his family’s eight kids to be born in Canada). Anderson served as Shelburne’s deputy mayor from 2018 to 2022 – the first Black person and the first person of Caribbean descent elected to office in Dufferin County. He points out that the 2016 census pegged Shelburne as the second-fastest growing town in Canada among municipalities with a population of 5,000 or more and outside a major metropolitan area.

“Anyone who comes to Shelburne will immediately notice the diversity of people, culture, shops and recreational activities. I’ve had people call me from Toronto or Mississauga thinking about moving up here to new subdivisions. When they ask me if this is a good place to live, I tell them yes, it’s worth the drive to Shelburne!”

During his time as deputy mayor, Anderson attended many ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new spots owned by West Indian entrepreneurs. In the past few years, he has witnessed the arrival of businesses such as BLavish Hair and Majestic Kings and Queens Salon – and a wave of foodie businesses, including De Marco’s Caffè, Finiti Seafood Depot, the African Caribbean Grocery, Blitzfull Treats ice cream truck and Jamaica House Jerk.

The power of food

“Food is one of those universal intersections that connects people,” says Phil DeWar, the Jamaican-born chef behind Soulyve Catering & Events who has lived in Orangeville since 2001 and ran the popular Soulyve restaurant on Mill Street in Orangeville in two successive locations from 2009 to 2019. One of his most-requested items is his signature Reggae Wrap featuring jerk chicken wrapped in a roti.

“When I moved to Orangeville as a high school student some 20 years ago, there was nowhere to go to get Caribbean food locally. I love that culturally diverse food is now more accessible and easier to find, not only in Caribbean or other ethnic-based restaurants, but also prevalent on the menu at mainstream restaurants.”

Soulyve’s Phil DeWar pours a Caribbean-inspired cocktail. Photo by Pete Paterson.

While Jamaica’s national dish of ackee and saltfish (made with sautéed ackee fruit, salted cod, tomatoes, onions and seasoning) might still be a relatively new arrival to the local food scene, the Caribbean diaspora in Canada has a history dating back more than 200 years. West Indian communities (and their delicious food) can be found from Victoria to Halifax. And as with many cuisines, each dish or plate is the product of a country’s long and winding – and often in this case, colonial – history.

Depending on the nation, you’ll find ingredients and cooking styles that can be traced to South America, Africa and India. You’ll also find repeat performances of seafood, tropical fruits and vegetables. A pan-Caribbean menu could include dishes as varied as roti-wrapped curries, peppery jerk chicken, oxtail stew, crispy conch fritters, fish soups and fried plantain – each of which intersect with a cultural identity in ways no immigrant wants to lose.

Indeed, finding your native cuisine in your new hometown is a comfort. As a Trinidadian Canadian who moved to Orangeville in 2017, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked through the Orangeville Farmers’ Market for the first time and discovered Fari Trini Tings, where Salisha and Jody Dindial were selling alloo (potato) pie, roti and fresh doubles, a pastry pocket filled with curried vegetables. I walked right up to them, ordered three doubles with “slight pepper” (meaning a little splash of spicy pepper sauce), and as I enjoyed the breakfast of champions, I felt a bit more at home in my new neighbourhood.

Jody and Salisha Dindial of Fari Trini Tings at the Orangeville Farmers’ Market. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Jerk chicken on the barbecue at Fiona’s Cuisine. Photo by Elaine Li, Crave and Capture

In the six short years I’ve been here so many new places have set up shop, including Nella’s Jerk and Topville Jamaican Cuisine in Orangeville, and Caribbean goods are now easier to find in local supermarkets. Every time my family goes to Shelburne, we pop into the African Caribbean Grocery for coconut water, mangoes and green seasoning (a bottled blend of green onions and herbs). The next spot on my list is Fiona’s Cuisine near Caledon Village, known for its jerk barbecue and a feast of shrimp served on half a pineapple.

And as these businesses develop and thrive, foods that are at once comforting reminders of home for some, and delectable ambassadors of Caribbean nations for others, continue to evolve, inspiring intriguing hyperlocal mashups. Think Caribbean-spiced perogies or jerk chicken fettucine alfredo – as two local cooks have.

Candy Henriques, creator of Candy’s Homemade Perogies, offers her Eastern European dumplings in jerk chicken and Trinidadian doubles varieties at Hillsburgh’s Jess For You Café and Baked Goods, where she works. “My husband, Kevin, is Jamaican, which inspired my love of Caribbean flavors, but I haven’t figured out how to make a roti-flavoured perogi yet!” she laughs.

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  • In 2022 Anthony Patterson opened his Fusionz food truck in Erin with a menu that reflected his own cultural background – Canadian, Jamaican, Italian and French – with fusion dishes such as butter chicken poutine, jerk poutine and jerk chicken fettuccine alfredo. The former DJ noticed that Hillsburgh, where he has lived for about eight years, had a lot of newcomers from a variety of backgrounds who might enjoy what he wanted to serve.

    “My two kids go to the local school, and I saw a lot of new families who had recently moved here, so I thought, what better time than now?” Patterson says. Perched right at the trailhead of the Elora Cataract Trailway on Erin’s Main Street, Fusionz attracts hikers and bikers in the summer, and hungry snowmobilers in the winter who make a pit stop to warm up with some spicy flavours. Patterson is now transitioning from the food truck to a small restaurant he’s upcycling himself from a shipping container, and he’s confident it will do well.

    “It’s been amazing, and I’ve been blessed to be so well received by the community,” says Patterson. “Watching that multiculturalism come to life in the small town that I live in, it was something beautiful to see.”

    Beyond the table

    In addition to imported and evolving food traditions, music is another important tool for celebrating Caribbean cultures and making new connections. At Shelburne’s 2022 Heritage Music Festival, Richie C and the Greatness Band was the first Jamaican reggae artist ever to take the stage. “Lots of people love reggae and the audience even called for an encore – you know when they call for an encore it’s a good sign,” says Alethia O’Hara-Stephenson, who at the time was the vicechair of Shelburne’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, which sponsored Richie C’s performance.

    O’Hara-Stephenson, who is also president and founder of the Dufferin County Canadian Black Association, describes how as a Jamaican Canadian she felt proud to hear live reggae included at the event. “A few years ago, a reggae singer wouldn’t even have known about this festival or where Shelburne was on a map. Now Richie C is a staple in Shelburne. It’s a testament to how the power of music can unify people.”

    More broadly, O’Hara-Stephenson says the health of the Caribbean community in our region is reflected in the sheer number of businesses with Caribbean DNA. An informal count of restaurants and food businesses easily surpasses a dozen. Other businesses are close behind. “Several years ago, when I moved here, I had to travel to Brampton or Toronto to get Caribbean things. I don’t have to do that anymore. I can shop local and keep the money in the local economy. That’s an immediate benefit.”

    Vennisha Balfour, owner of BLavish Hair in Shelburne, braids customer Josiane Adams’ hair while assistant Monique Robinson looks on. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Keeping their culture alive through food and music is also crucial to Martello and Janeque Jones, the owners of Art Of 8 Martial Arts Academy in Orangeville, where they teach recreational and competitive Muay Thai and kickboxing. Originally from Hanover Parish on the northwestern tip of Jamaica, the Jones family has called Canada home since 2007. After living in big cities like Ottawa and Brampton, they moved to a quiet country home in Amaranth six years ago, describing it as “The best decision we ever made.”

    For them music, food and language are all a key part of their family life. And they want their two Canadian-born children, 15-year-old Jai-Kristoeff and 8-year-old Mjöer-Micah, to also be proud of their Jamaican identity. At home the family speaks patois, in the car you can almost always find dancehall music playing, and home-cooked meals are authentically Jamaican, consisting of rice and peas, fried chicken, curried goat and oxtail.

    Art Of 8 owners Janeque and Martello Jones and their sons Mjöer-Micah, left, and Jai-Kristoeff, at centre. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Their distinctly Caribbean charisma crosses over into their professional life too – in October 2022 when Art Of 8 hosted GENESIS, the very first kickboxing show to be held in Dufferin County, they made sure the DJ pumped up the crowds with high-energy reggae, dancehall and soca. It was perhaps fitting that Orangeville-based video production company The Art of Storytelling, run by my sister Miranda and her husband James O’Connor, who also moved here from Trinidad, were on hand to record the Orangeville Fairgrounds come alive with the contagious rhythms of the islands. “We put our heart and soul into it,” says Janeque.

    Still, Martello admits it wasn’t all smooth sailing for his family when Art Of 8 first opened its doors – and not just because they first had to survive the Covid pandemic which hit at the same time. Some people were reluctant to accept that a Black Jamaican man was the right person to teach Muay Thai. “Snide remarks were made, like ‘Don’t you think it’s strange that Black people are teaching martial arts?’,” says Jones with a smile. He first became a student of Muay Thai in 2010 while living in Ottawa. “Most martial arts originate in Asia. But this question is never asked of a Caucasian person regarding the martial art they’re teaching.”

    Building the future

    Overcoming those kinds of biases can take a lot of outreach, something Althea Alli has pursued for the past 10 years. When Althea, who has a multicultural Guyanese background, moved with her young family from Brampton to Shelburne in 2013, she wanted her kids to feel comfortable in their new home and be part of the community.

    Alli began by volunteering in their school, talking to the kids about cultural diversity and inclusiveness, and getting involved in the Shelburne Fall Fair and the Shelburne Fiddle Parade. Her experiences eventually led her to form the Dufferin County Multicultural Foundation, which holds events such as the annual Dufferin County Multicultural Festival at the Museum of Dufferin.

    Althea Alli of the Dufferin County Multicultural Foundation. Photo by Rosemary Hasner.

    “It’s amazing to get a turnout of people from all over the world, including from the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Africa, bringing their drums, steelpan, dances, crafts, art, food and more,” says Alli. “It’s been incredibly humbling to see the community come together like this to celebrate their unique cultures. We should all be proud of our heritage and be proud to share it with others.”

    Over the decade that Alli has called Shelburne home, she has witnessed the changes not only in Shelburne, but across Headwaters. “Now there’s a cricket club in town, the libraries have more multicultural content, the Streams Hub has fantastic programing for kids, Theatre Orangeville has diverse stories… These are all signs of a community that is growing and thriving, and that welcomes newcomers.”

    This is a sentiment echoed by Soulyve’s Phil DeWar, who says this increased diversity creates new opportunities for big and small businesses alike to work together to meet the needs of the community as it evolves. These days, the Soulyve GoodSpot food truck can be found at all kinds of events and popup locations. In August DeWar debuted a new cocktail and drinks event, In Good Spirits, as part of the Taste of Orangeville. His demonstration? Chic, Caribbean-inspired cocktails highlighting ingredients such as rum, citrus and coconut. But his reach is extensive, whether it’s a trivia night at the Rural Commons in Erin, a St. Patrick’s Day party at The Taphouse in Orangeville or making steak pot pies for Am Braigh Farm in Mono. And if you stop at GoodLot in Caledon for a cold pint on a hot day, you’ll likely find Phil there, serving both modern Afro/Carib fusion and a wide range of other menu items from the food truck.

    “I’m proud to have been one of the firsts, but I’m prouder and more encouraged when I see ever-changing growth and new places open up to reflect that diversity,” Phil says. “I think it’s a great sign for the present, and the future.”

    More Info


    There are enough restaurants, farmers’ market stalls, catering outfits and shops across Headwaters to keep you satisfied indefinitely.




    • Mrs. D Jerk, Roti and Pastry
      247 Highway 10, #2


    • Candy’s Homemade Perogies
      Jess for You Cafe
      109 Trafalgar Rd, #107
      (Also at Holtom’s Bakery in Erin, and More Than Just Baskets and Deja Vu Diner in Orangeville)
      FB Candy’s Homemade Perogies



    About the Author More by Emily Dickson

    Emily Dickson is a writer and editor living in Orangeville.

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