Community leader a ‘champion of others’
Director of MicroSkills centre was committed to helping women, newcomers succeed
Community leader Kay Blair had a hugely successful career, but always maintained a proper perspective on life.
“It’s OK to do well. But we’ve got to keep the doors open for each other,” she informally told a small group of senior women from the non-profit sector in a video filmed by Planet Africa TV.
“We sometimes don’t want to connect because we’re doing well and the others are not doing well. . . . But we have to find a way to be humble and to be supportive of each other.”
As executive director of Etobicoke-based Community MicroSkills Development Centre since 1988, Blair led an organization that annually provides settlement, employment and self-employment services to tens of thousands of immigrants, low-income women and youth in the GTA.
Blair also held a number of other leadership roles elsewhere in the community. From 2011 to 2014, she was chair of the board of the William Osler Health System. Between 2009 and 2014, she sat on Centennial College’s Board of Governors, the last year as chair.
“She was a leader, but a humble leader,” said Debbie Douglas, a friend of Blair for the last 32 years and currently executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). Blair served two terms as president of OCASI in the late 1990s.
“She was as comfortable in the boardrooms of Canada as she was in a pub or Caribbean restaurant,” Douglas said.
Blair died on Sept. 26 at age 62. She had been diagnosed with sarcoma less than four years ago.
“She always took the stance as a supporter or mentor or champion of others,” said Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, who first met Blair many years ago at a women
“She always took the stance as a supporter or mentor or champion of others.” MITZIE HUNTER ONTARIO EDUCATION MINISTER
and technology workshop. “She was one of the leaders of the community we could turn to for advice.”
Brampton mayor Linda Jeffrey said, “Community engagement and giving back was part of her DNA.”
Blair was twice named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women. She also received a YWCA Women of Distinction Award, a Premier’s Award and many other honours.
Blair joined MicroSkills in 1988, when it had just four staff and two desks. The then four-year-old organization was “a project waiting for a vision,” said Jane Wilson, who has worked at MicroSkills since its creation. The organization’s name came from its initial purpose to train women to become microfiche technicians.
Blair “was incredibly energetic and fast paced,” said Wilson, director of women’s and newcomer services at MicroSkills. Blair was strongly committed to getting women into better paying jobs. “She wasn’t content with the status quo,” said Wilson.
Blair understood the barriers faced by immigrant women looking for work, said Wilson. “She had a great belief in people’s innate skills and their potential to acquire new skills,” she said.
“To see someone walking into our agency and they’re all folded under and they’re scared, they’re unsure what’s going to happen in their life,” Blair said in a video posted on TVO’s YouTube channel. “And to see in a very short while, the shoulders are up and they’re feeling confident and they’re ready to take the world on, that keeps me going.”
Under her leadership, the organization grew to almost 200 staff at its peak, becoming a multi-service agency offering many programs to its clientele.
Blair, née Anderson, was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, in 1954, the second of nine children. As a young adult, she was known to take part in sit-ins in Jamaica, fighting for political change, said her son, Karim Blair.
Kay Blair came to Canada in 1976. Empowered after ending an abusive relationship, she began helping other abused women. “She battled her way out,” Karim said.
Her experience gave her a special insight when she later became a counsellor at the Emily Stowe Shelter for Women.
“When a woman gets here, she’s in shock for three days. Then she realizes she’s not alone and she feels very positive about herself,” Blair told the Toronto Star in 1985. “Then, reality sets in; she becomes desperate. She can’t get housing and getting welfare seems so difficult.”
While Blair had an impact on the community, she was also a big influence on her extended family. “You have taught us to express our thoughts, remain strong during adversity and always leave the door of opportunity open for the next person,” niece Michelle Miles said in the eulogy she delivered at Blair’s funeral. “You taught us that compassion is key and that as black women, we can engage and change the world.”
While Blair was the first member of her family to come to Canada, she helped four of her siblings join her over the years. These individuals and their children stayed with Blair until they got a chance to settle into their new environment.
“Auntie Kay, as the anchor of our family, you kept everyone in check, you kept everyone clothed and made sure everyone had what they needed to succeed, all in the name of love,” Miles said in her eulogy. “It has been an honour and a privilege to have you in my life and although I would rather more time, I am grateful that my idol is my Auntie Kay.”
Blair leaves behind her two sons, two grandchildren, eight siblings and 22 nieces and nephews.
Kay Blair was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, in 1954. She was the second of nine children in her family.
Blair at the 2012 Jamaica Land We Love Gala in Toronto.