By RON FANFAIR
Fighting back tears, Karim Blair recalled as a boy accompanying his mother – Kay Blair – almost everywhere she went.
“I was often referred to as the handbag,” he told mourners at her funeral last Friday.
An advocate for women’s rights and social justice, Blair succumbed to cancer two weeks ago. She was 62.
Now a married father of two children, Karim Blair recounted the countless trips he made with his mom to women shelters, business meetings and conferences.
“I was consistently bored being around all these talking adults looking to shape policy and help change Canada,” said the younger of her two children. “What I didn’t know at the time was that my mom was putting me in an environment where I could learn compassion, patience, understanding and listening and life skills.”
Older son, Corcel Blair, said he was raised by a “true walking and living angel.
“I am not crying because I am sad,” he said. “I am crying because I am a selfish individual. I love my mother endlessly and would like to have her with me.”
Migrating to Canada in 1976, Blair – the second of nine children – joined the staff at Emily Stowe Shelter for Women and was instrumental in establishing the Shirley Samaroo House, the first shelter of its kind delivering services to abused immigrant women.
Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) executive director, Debbie Douglas, met Blair 32 years ago when she applied for her first job in the violence against women sector.
“As a young university student eager to learn and engage, I could not have been any luckier than meeting Kay who was a staff member at Emily Stowe Shelter for Women,” said Douglas in her tribute. “One of the things I most admired about Kay was her consistency and commitment. She was committed to the work being done in the boardroom as she was committed to the grassroots and to building organizations to the benefit of those most marginalized.
“Early in her professional life, Kay developed an anti-racist approach to all of her work. She became my mentor and more importantly my friend. Kay soared beyond what is often expected of a Black Jamaican immigrant woman.”
As a 15-year-old, Blair’s niece – Charmayne Julien – volunteered in Emily Stowe’s kitchen and office.
“It was not uncommon to see me with Kay as she travelled to various parts of Ontario to challenge or protest one organization after another,” said Julien. “The impact she had on the lives of many will live on for generations. She has made this world a better place and we will continue to build on her efforts both at work and at home. While we have lost our fearless leader, we are comforted in knowing that she has imparted the tools we need to move forward together.”
Michelle Ann Miles said her aunt was her role model and idol.
“You had a smile that lit up a room, a deep knowledge of a range of issues, a critical analysis that was unparalleled and well-articulated and a sophisticated swagger and confidence that was wrapped in grace and humility,” she said looking down at the coffin. “You became someone I aspired to be. While everyone was yearning to be the next Angela Davis or Maya Angelou, I wanted to be you, Auntie Kay.
“Your commitment to social justice and community advocacy were significant reasons why I wanted to be the next Kay Blair. But it was your values and family friendships that demanded you the title of a phenomenal woman. You taught us to express our thoughts, remain strong in the face of adversity and always leave the door of opportunity open for the next person. You taught us that compassion is key and that as Black women, we could engage and change the world.”
Blair was the president of the National Visible Minority Council on Labour Force Development, the Peel Police Race Relations Committee and OCASI and executive director of MicroSkills Community Development centre.
She also chaired the board of the William Osler Health System that lowered flags at half-staff at its facilities and the board of governors at Centennial College that will establish a $10,000 scholarship in her name.
Mourners at the funeral included Ontario’s Minister of Education, Mitzie Hunter; former provincial minister, Mary Anne Chambers; Senator Ratna Omidvar; Canadian Women’s Foundation president and chief executive officer, Paulette Senior and Jamaican Canadian Association past presidents, Roy Williams and Nehemiah (Miah) Bailey and current president, Adaoma Patterson.
Blair was buried next to her mother – Hermine Manhertz – who died last November at age 84.