Lillie Johnson lauded as a dedicated public health advocate at Order of Canada investiture

By Neil Armstrong

Centenarian Lillie Johnson — who founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario and will celebrate her 102nd birthday on March 16 — has been lauded for her advocacy for sickle cell disease in Ontario.

At a special ceremony held at Extendicare Rouge Valley, the long-term care residence where she lives in Scarborough, Ontario, on February 27, Johnson was invested into the Order of Canada by Edith Dumont, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

From left: Edith Dumont, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. and Lillie Johnson

Reading the citation to accompany the presentation of the insignia, Dr. Jim Lai, the aide-de camp of the lieutenant governor, noted that investitures into the Order of Canada usually take place at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. However, at the request of the governor general this investiture was happening in Scarborough.

 “Nurse and educator, Lillie Johnson, is a dedicated public health advocate. Founder of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, she led the organization for four decades encouraging greater understanding of the disease at the public and academic levels, and successfully lobbying for its inclusion in newborn screening in Ontario. She has also been involved in the development of specialized organizations to further address the health needs of the Black community.

“By command of the Right Honourable Mary May Simon, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, Lillie Johnson of Scarborough is hereby invested as a Member of the Order of Canada.”

Johnson was born on March 16, 1922, in St. Ann, Jamaica, to parents who were both teachers. She was one of ten children and after graduating from Wolmer’s High School, she attended Shortwood Teachers College, taught at various schools in the 1940s before leaving for Edinburg, Scotland to become a nurse in the 1950s, and then went to England where she studied midwifery and worked in Oxfordshire.

Group picture with Lillie Johnson at Investiture

Johnson returned to Jamaica and worked at the University College of the West Indies for a few years before leaving to work as a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in New Jersey. In 1960, she migrated to Canada to work at St. Joseph’s Hospital, then the Hospital for Sick Children. She was the first Black director of public health in Canada.

Elaine Thompson said she has known her for many years, from being her Mary Kay customer to attending her health briefings for CUSO, the international development agency for Canada, and being a board member of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO), which Lillie Johnson founded in 1981.

Legiston Ferron, nephew-in-law of Johnson, and niece Verna Robinson were in attendance. Speaking on behalf of the family, Ferron thanked everyone who attended the investiture and had a special appreciation for the staff at Extendicare for “making this institution a second home for our aunt over the last seven years or so.”

“I’ve often said that every family should have a Lillie Johnson for her tenacity, her strong opinions and she’s usually right, and her softer sense of true caring, good humour and her ability to mentor young people and to have fun at the appropriate time.”

Dr. Michael Guerriere, the president and chief executive officer of Extendicare, said they were extremely proud to have Johnson as one of their residents and congratulated her on the appointment and expressed how honoured they felt that she was being invested into the Order during Black History Month. He noted that her passion and pursuit of improving health care has changed countless lives.