One has been a decades-long tireless crusader for sickle cell disease. The other is a living and cultural resource assiduously promoting and preserving Black history.
Octogenarians Lillie Johnson and Wilma Morrison are among the latest appointments to the Order of Ontario – the province’s highest award – for their substantial contributions.
Trained as a health care professional in her native Jamaica and Scotland, Johnson fulfilled her life’s calling in Ontario – her home for the past 51 years – as a public health nurse.
The first Black director of public health for Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District, her sustained passion as a sickle cell advocate resulted in the province’s Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care including sickle cell disease on the list of 28 genetic diseases for universal newborn screening in 2005.
Johnson founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, initially conducting its work from her home. For the past three decades, she has dedicated most of her life to the education of sicklers and their families, health practitioners, policy makers, educators and government about the symptoms and implications of the hereditary disorder that affects mostly people of colour.
“I cannot think of a more deserving individual for the Order of Ontario,” said former provincial minister Mary Anne Chambers who nominated Johnson for the honour.
“Her lifetime of service to others makes her an exceptionally deserving candidate for the honour. The results that she has achieved speak to the legitimacy of her mission and serve to illustrate that ordinary but special people can achieve extraordinary things. She has already made so many lives better and even more will benefit from her legacy.”
Johnson came to Canada in 1960 to work for the Canadian Red Cross, which was looking for nurses for Ontario outposts. She was assigned to Red Lake which is nearly 100 kilometres from the Manitoba border. On arriving in Toronto, she was able to exchange that posting for one at St. Joseph’s hospital.
She spent time at The Hospital for Sick Children where she pursued paediatric studies for her provincial registered nurses accreditation and studied part-time at the University of Toronto School of Nursing.
Johnson, now 88, also took a genetics summer course that exposed her to sickle cell disease and its effects.
“Lillie encountered and overcame much racial prejudice in her work and her travels throughout her career,” said Chambers, the president of the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE) of which Johnson is a member. “But that solid core of public service and desire to teach and make a difference sustained her and fed her will to continue.
“She became a trailblazer in her own right as a Black woman, but more importantly as a nurse who applied a wide world view in her approach to her work. Ontario’s families and the field of public health are beneficiaries of Miss Johnson’s dedication, knowledge, professionalism and fearlessness.”
Morrison, 82, played a pivotal role in helping to rescue the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel built in 1836, saving it from destruction and having the landmark officially designated a national historic site in 2000. The chapel was named for the renowned musical composer and educator who was born in what was then known as Drummondville (now Niagara Falls) and who played at, among other venues, Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Academy of Music before American presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
London-born Morrison also created the Norval Johnson Heritage which, with the chapel, are important tourist attractions. The library houses almost 1,600 volumes related to Black history and is a research centre for students and educators interested in African-Canadian history or their own genealogical background.
Last June, Brock University conferred an honorary doctorate on the historian/curator who co-founded the Brock/Niagara African Renaissance Group comprising the university’s faculty staff and students and community members whose goal is to enliven community and university research alliance and contribute to the ongoing cultural development of African-Canadian heritage at Brock and in the Niagara region.
Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley, who presented the honours, said the awardees represent a roll call of the great and the good in the province.
“Each of you has made an indelible imprint on society in countless ways,” he said. “You have soared above the ordinary and you are an inspiration to all Ontarians.”
This year’s honorees bring to 540 the number of distinguished recipients since 1987 when the Order was first presented.