As a young girl growing up in Jamaica in the late 1920s, Amy Nelson took exception to her father’s request to deliver gifts to the poor at harvest time.
It was only when the family patriarch told his daughter that their family and those she was making deliveries to were both poor, but that those receiving gifts were less privileged, did she get the message that has stayed with her for the rest of her life and guided almost everything she has done in nine decades.
Nelson turned 90 last Sunday and joining in the celebration to mark the milestone at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) centre were family, friends and politicians, including Ontario’s Minister of Citizenship & Immigration, Charles Sousa, and York West Liberal Member of Parliament, Judy Sgro, who presented a scroll and flowers to the nonagenarian.
“You have made Canada what it is today which is a caring country,” Sgro told Nelson. “If I could lift you up and put you in the Prime Minister’s office right this moment, I would do that and not because I am a Liberal but because I think you will do a damn good job of running our country. You have not only shown outstanding leadership in the JCA and all the other organizations that you have been part of, but you have also been there for countless individuals. You have counselled them and given them a shoulder to cry on. You are always there for everybody.”
Thanking Nelson for the direction and leadership she has provided in the community, Sousa said she is held in high esteem at Queen’s Park.
“I have come to know her as a result of some of the things she has done and some of those things that have been spoken about her at Queen’s Park,” said Sousa. “I can tell you they talk about her in the Premier’s office as well. We pay tribute to a woman who has been a trailblazer, certainly for Jamaicans and other Caribbean people and Blacks everywhere in this province. She represents the best in what we look for.”
Sousa presented a plaque to Nelson signed by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Born to parents who both lived into their 90s, Nelson started a career in nursing in 1949, working for the first decade in rural Jamaica at Lionel Town and Port Maria hospitals in Clarendon and St. Mary parishes, respectively. She also worked at Victoria Jubilee hospital in Kingston before migrating to Toronto in 1959.
A surgical nurse by training, Nelson was employed at the Toronto General Hospital’s ophthalmology department, where she was the only Black surgical nurse at the time.
Sensitive to the experiences of Jamaican women facing racial bias, she spearheaded efforts to establish the JCA, which she envisioned would serve as a meeting place for newly-arrived West Indians.
“For Amy to step forward in that role after just three years in a new country and reach out to those coming behind her was truly outstanding,” said consul general George Ramocan. “She has left her mark on this community.”
As a founding JCA member, Nelson helped draft the constitution and arranged a community meeting at the then Central YMCA on College Street, where the constitution was accepted. She was the JCA centre’s building committee chair and has served on almost every committee in the last five decades.
After retiring in 1986, Nelson cofounded the Caribbean Seniors Association and played an active role in planning, sorting, packaging, shipping and organizing and feeding volunteers after Hurricane Gilbert hit Jamaica in 1989.
She also became a fierce advocate for the elderly, joining the Seniors Ethnic Women’s Group, the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens Organization, the North York Health Centre for Seniors, Sisters on the Move and the Mayor’s Committee on Aging & Elderly Abuse.
In addition, she volunteered with Medical Mission International in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
“Amy’s life has been about helping humanity and not just Jamaican and Black people,” said Centre for Addiction and Mental Health hospital director and former JCA executive director, Akwatu Khenti, who Nelson adopted nearly three decades ago. “She never let the fact that I was from Trinidad & Tobago get in the way. She has been with me through thick and thin and highs and lows.
“Hers has been an incredible life, one of giving and sharing and loving and caring. It’s a life I feel blessed and honoured to be able to share.”
Nelson’s son, Norman, also paid tribute to his mother at the event at which a one-time scholarship was launched to mark the milestone. It will be presented next year.
BY RON FANFAIR