By Jasminee Sahoye
Influential members of the Jamaican Diaspora on Sunday paid glowing tributes to the founder of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, Lillie Johnson, who launched her memoir and celebrated her 93rd birthday.
“I’m happy about this evening, the turnout was marvellous. That means I must have been doing something right and that is so important to me,” Johnson – fondly known as Miss Lillie – told The Camera after listening to tributes and signing copies of her book, My Dream.
Among those paying tribute were Jamaica’s Consul General Lloyd Wilks, former MP Mary Ann Chambers, past president of the Jamaican Canadian Association Audrey Campbell, founding member of Black Health Alliance Dr. Chris Morgan and Dotty Nicholas, vice-president of Sickle Cell Awareness Group of Ontario.
“We owe this lady a huge debt of gratitude. Not only is she a trail blazer but she is still blazing trails,” Wilks said.
“What it means to be resilient and strong and as a woman I think we missed the opportunity on International Women’s Day to really ‘big her up’, so I will recall the day and ‘big her up’ today,” Wilks said to a round of applause.
Chambers, who was instrumental in nominating Johnson for the province’s highest honour in 2011 – the Order of Ontario – said, “What inspires me is Ms. Lillie’s unwavering commitment to what she believes in. One of the things I have heard from Ms. Lillie is that we are never too old to make a difference.
“Ms. Lillie broke out some huge barriers as a youngster. If you drive along College by the University of Toronto, you would see a banner honouring Ms. Lillie as part of the Boundless Campaign. Ms. Lillie was out in rural Ontario at a time when they probably had never seen a Black person before and Ms. Lillie wowed them.“
Johnson touched the lives of many young people whom she mentored including a young Damian Brown who read an excerpt from her book after explaining how she guided him to academic success – he is now in law school.
Another touching tribute came from Sandria Gillespie who almost lost her children due to post-partum depression, an area of study that Johnson had excelled in. The two met at the courthouse. Johnson was there to represent a mother with sickle cell anemia who had twins and was fighting to keep her children. With Johnson`s assistance in battling her depression, Gillespie managed to keep her children.
Known as the first Black director of public health in Leeds-Grenville and Lanark District, Johnson, has worked tirelessly to get sickle cell disease recognized by the province. While she managed to get the province to include screening for newborns, she says she “still has a lot more to get done” and wants to continue for years to come.
Despite facing discrimination and prejudice when she moved to Canada from the U.S. where she worked for a few years, Johnson said when she lived and studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, she was treated “very well.”
Of her early years in Canada, she said, “It has been a challenging one so, I usually say they didn’t send and call me, so I am the one who had to make the adjustment. Once they see you mean business they encourage you. I got a lot of encouragement.”
However, she mentioned in her book, published though the Canada 150 series, under the Toronto Hakka Seniors Association, that she faced barriers to finding a job when she had to upgrade qualifications gained in the U.K. – barriers such as the application process which asked the colour of your skin.
But with perseverance, this celebrated woman went on to fulfill her nursing dreams, retiring in 1988 to devote her time to volunteering in education and raising awareness of sickle cell disease.
And at 93, Johnson said, she plans to write another book about what she has “learned throughout her journey and pass it on to the community.”My Dream is available on Amazon at www.amazon.ca.