Com­mu­nity leader a ‘cham­pion of oth­ers’

Di­rec­tor of Mi­croSkills cen­tre was com­mit­ted to help­ing women, new­com­ers suc­ceed

Toronto Star - - GREATER TORONTO - GE­ORGE HAIM SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

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.

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