Marcus Garvey, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
Button for the Emily Stowe Shelter for Women and Children. Courtesy of The RiseUp! Feminist Archive
Portrait of Kay Blair, 2021. Image by Meighan Morson. Courtesy of BSAM Canada
Kay Blair was born in the St. Catherine Parish of Jamaica in 1954. Blair began her work in advocacy as a young activist, participating in sit-ins and other forms of protest to fight for political change. Blair was the first member of her family to immigrate to Canada in 1976. After her arrival, she later sponsored four of her siblings as they underwent their own process of immigrating to Canada over the next few decades.
After her arrival in Toronto, Blair attended Humber College and graduated from a two-year community worker program in 1985. She later attended Royal Roads University where she received an MBA with a specialization in Leadership.
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Advocacy for Women and Newcomers
Settling in Toronto, Blair began a career dedicated to supporting immigrants and visible minority women, starting as a counsellor at the Emily Stowe Shelter for Women. The Scarborough-based shelter opened in 1983 and served upwards of 300 women and children a year by the mid-1980s. The Shelter offered a safe space for women experiencing domestic violence, as well as offering family counselling and professional legal advice. Today, the shelter operates as Dr. Roz’s Healing Place.
Blair also was instrumental in establishing the Shirley Samaroo House, the first shelter of its kind to focus on immigrant women who were victims of abuse. Today, the shelter is part of Yorktown Family Services.
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Community MicroSkills Development Centre
In 1988, Blair joined the staff at the Community MicroSkills Development Centre. Opened in 1984, the Centre initially offered job-skills training to women, with an emphasis on newcomers to Canada. By the late 1980s, the non-profit organization had expanded to provide settlement and employment services, particularly to newcomers, women, and youth.
Blair served as Executive Director for the organization for over twenty years. Under her guidance, MicroSkills became a multi-service agency of 200 staff operating across Etobicoke and North York. By the 2010s, the organization served upwards of 15,000 people each year.
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Blair’s commitment to low-income women and immigrants put her at the centre of initiatives which advanced the economic development of women and supported youth in communities. She established the Women’s Technology Institute which trained low-income women for the IT sector, and was a founding member of the Canadian Women’s Economic Development Council. As President of the National Visible Minority Council on Labour Force Development, she advocated for increased availability to job training and language classes to create more equitable hiring practices throughout Canada.
Blair received the Ontario Race Relations Award, Jamaica’s 100 Women of the Century Special Recognition, and was named one of Canada’s most powerful women twice. Blair died in September 2016, at age 62. She left behind a network of friends, family, and colleagues who continued her work for change.
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The Generous Beacon
As part of BSAM Canada’s “Unveiling Heroes of the Block” project, artist Meighan Morson’s “The Generous Beacon” portrays Kay Blair as an empath “…a being with the power to use and amplify the abilities of others. I felt like this tied in with her life’s work, being actively involved with developing the skills of marginalized communities within the GTA.”
Also seen in the portrait is Blair’s headband, which Morson envisioned as a way Blair magnified her power and reached wider groups of people. Morson was inspired by Blair’s statement: “It’s okay to do well, but we’ve got to keep the doors open for each other.” As Morson states: “That quote resonated with me, so I centered the piece’s concept around it…The beads around her neck are symbolic of the amount of lives her contribution will affect, not only during her lifetime, but for generations to come.”