Life stories put human face on Canada’s story

By Jasminee Sahoye

Margaret Williams reads excerpts from Lillie Johnson’s story of her life, My Dream. Jasminee Sahoye Photo.
Margaret Williams reads excerpts from Lillie Johnson’s story of her life, My Dream. Jasminee Sahoye Photo.

Canadians are being encouraged to write their life stories as a part of the Canada 150 Project as a countdown to the country’s 150th birthday in 2017.

Among those who took advantage of the opportunity to write their memoirs, which will be kept in the country’s National Archive in Ottawa, is Jamaican-born Lillie Johnson, 93. Hers and 11 others’ memoirs were published through Toronto Hakka Seniors Association which received a grant from Canada 150 to write and print their stories.

Margaret Williams, a native of Ireland married to a Canadian of Chinese-Jamaican descent, had her story published and with her assistance, she documented and edited Johnson’s book My Dream which was launched March 15 at the Jamaican Canadian Association.

Williams worked on the contents and the book cover which took about two years.

“Some of the words that she used may come across as strong. There were some sections I would read back to her after the recording because I’ve had to record the conversation and I would transcribe. I would come back and say, ‘Lillie, I want to read this back to you – do you really want to say this, are you sure that you wouldn’t offend somebody if you said this’?” Williams told The Camera.

“Not everything we talked about made it into the final version. One particular anecdote about Lillie’s life in Scotland while training to be a nurse absolutely had to be included. Why? Every time we mentioned the kilt, Lillie had a bit of a giggle.

“While studying to be a nurse in Edinburgh, Scotland, Lillie used to go to the British Council gatherings for foreign students. This is her description: ‘Some of the nurses told me, Lillie you know that the men don’t wear any underpants under their kilts and I said no man and one said, Well, I have a brother and he told me that. So I decided to check it out … I never did find out’,” Williams said, reading this excerpt from the book.

She calls Johnson “a delight to work with. She will tell you exactly what she thinks and what’s important to her.”