Lillie Johnson in a nursing uniform

They Are More Than Research Subjects: Recognizing the Accomplishments of Black Canadian Nurses

Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora is based on extensive interviews I conducted with 35 nurses. Through those interviews, I examine how Black Canadian-born and Caribbean nurses made meaning of their occupational experiences, communities, and relationships to the Canadian nation. The experiences of these nurses are significant in a profession that has historically excluded them. As a Black feminist scholar, it was not enough to retrieve the nurses’ narratives; I was deliberate and intentional in developing and maintaining a relationship with them. This article recounts and honors the lives and accomplishments of some of those nurses, who became cherished friends.

During my holiday visit home in 2019 to Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, I called Daphne B. several times. I surmised that she might have been visiting her family in Jamaica and planned to call her again in the new year. When I returned to the U.S. I settled back into my professional and personal obligations.

Book cover features an image of Lillie Johnson
Cover of Moving Beyond Borders. (©Karen Flynn)

In late February 2020, I received a call from my dear friend, journalist Neil Armstrong. He told me that Daphne had passed away. I was speechless and in shock. After I hung up, I broke down and sobbed. It felt like a lifetime had passed since I interviewed Daphne. Our first of many conversations was in 1995. During those interviews, she shared how she came to Canada. Following the Second World War, a nursing shortage in Canada led to recruitment initiatives encouraging mostly white nurses from countries such as Britain to migrate to Canada. Despite Immigration Canada’s policy prohibiting the migration of racialized peoples, hospitals, desperate for labor, engaged in their own recruitment efforts. The hospital sponsored Daphne, who migrated to Canada in 1960. She lived in residence at the hospital; this was a relief because, as she explained, “there were hardly any Black people” in Canada at the time. Following my conversation with Neil, I reached out to Daphne’s friend, Sheila Raymond, another nurse who I interviewed. Sheila consoled me by saying that Daphne was at peace when she passed away; she was pleased with the life she had lived.

Approximately two months later, I received an email from historian Christina Simmons (my MA supervisor at the University of Windsor) letting me know that Daphne Clarke had died in April 2020. And in September, another loss: Freida Steele, a Black Canadian nurse, passed away.

As I mourn the loss of Daphne B., Daphne C., and Frieda, I worry that despite their roles as trailblazers in nursing, and despite my book, they will be forgotten. For me, if the nurses are alive, then their stories and experiences- virtually absent in nursing scholarship- live on. Amidst my emotions after the news of each nurse’s passing, and fully cognizant that there will be more losses, I told myself that I should perhaps have stuck to historical analysis and studied the past – that way I would be less attached. But the truth is, my work is motivated by a Black feminist standpoint. By privileging their voices and experiences, I wanted the nurses to feel valued, and to understand that their ways of knowing and their life histories mattered to me beyond the academic benefits I stood to gain. My research would be “socially just in its methods and intentions.”[1]

My interactions with the nurses was based on honesty and enthusiasm, as I was passionate about my desire to unearth and tell their powerful stories. Black nurses – especially those born in Canada – had a vested interest in their stores being told. The nurses were knowledge producers in their own right and were cognizant of their own contributions to Canadian society: accomplishments that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged. I humbly accepted my role as the conduit to bear witness and write collective histories of a group of women who integrated Canadian nursing schools and hospitals.

Besides periodic emails and phone calls, before and after my book was published, I shared my scholarship with the nurses and their family members. I had the privilege of inviting some of the nurses to book launch events for the book. At an event hosted by the Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing School, Sheila Raymond, Betty Clarke, Lillie Johnson, and Daphne B. were in attendance. Daphne B., Frieda, Agnes Ellesworth, and Virginia Travis were present at the book launch held at the University of Windsor. Agnes, Virginia, and Frieda shared the distinction of being the first few Black Canadian nursing students at their respective schools. It was important that people heard firsthand accounts of what it was like for the women to train in an occupation and work in hospitals where the “proper nurse” at the bedside was white. For that moment, the audience was reminded that even their beloved Canada, a nation that often prided itself on being unlike the United States, has to reconcile its own racist past and present.

These nurses entrusted me with their stories. “Moving on” is another way for nurses to cope with personal struggles and profound loss. Daphne C. was at work when her husband was rushed to the hospital, dying soon after. As she told me the story, years later, tears welled up in both of our eyes. Daphne C. lost a son as well. I felt the depth of her pain as she spoke candidly about her depression, which was surprising given the stigma with mental illness in Black Canadian communities. She chose not to give in to that pain, and instead moved on and founded an outlet that would help her cope: Windsor Working with Immigrant Women (W5). The organization was geared toward Caribbean domestic workers. She confided this to me during an interview in her bookstore –Montego Bay, Windsor, Ontario’s first Black and Black woman-owned bookstore.

Nursing pioneer, trailblazer, community minded, and mentor is how Daphne B., Daphne C., and Frieda are described by the people who knew them best. Black nurses could never be “just nurses.” For these women, marginalization in nursing, coupled with the social conditions of their communities, has meant an involvement in activism even after retirement.

Lillie Johnson in her nursing uniform
A young Lillie Johnson in her nursing uniform. (©Sickle Cell Association of Ontario)

As I write this, Lillie Johnson is 98 years old. She has had an impressive career of “firsts.” A sickle cell advocate, Lillie founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO) in 1989. She has engaged in advocacy efforts with the Ontario government, health administration officials, medical personnel, and educational institutions. Based on her concrete actions to achieve racial justice in health care for Black communities, I see Lillie as a pragmatic public intellectual. Her advocacy efforts came to fruition, as she recounts in her memoir, My Dreams: “After long years of advocacy, we finally achieved one major objective in 2005: Universal Newborn Screening (UNS) in Ontario for 28 genetic diseases, of which sickle cell is one.” We all can learn from Lillie’s remarkable perseverance, commitment, and activism. For years, Lillie and I spoke regularly. During a visit in the nursing home, Lillie recounted that her wish then and now is that nurses become more effective advocates – particularly for the marginalized.

Lillie’s age is not lost on me. It is not always easy to reach her, but fortunately, I connected with Lillie’s niece, who keeps me informed about her health, especially during the pandemic. I dread that at some point, Lillie’s niece will call and tell me of her passing. When that time comes, I will shed more tears for Lillie and the other nurses, but I will also remind myself that I built and sustained strong relationships with these nurse activists. My career has made them proud. Indeed, when Frieda read my book she wrote, “Thank you for telling our stories so effectively! I stayed up Wednesday night until 2:30 AM reading your book! Needless to say, I was bleary-eyed next day!” I take comfort in, and am honored by, that confirmation.

Notes

      1. Susan Strega and Leslie Brown, “From Resistance to Resurgence,” in Susan Strega and Leslie Brown eds., Research as Resistance: Revisiting Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-Oppressive Approaches (Canadian Scholars Press Inc., 2015), 19.

About the Author

4 Comments

Dr. Lois Leveen she/her

Karen,
Thanks for doing this important work. Please note: the link to your book on this site isn’t working, and when I search the press’s website, the link there isn’t working either!
I’m curious about whether in the book or elsewhere you’ve written about Black nurses who were part of the Grenfell Nursing Mission. My partner’s grandmother, who was white, immigrated from the midwestern US to Labrador to serve there; she went for a summer and stayed for the next six decades, until she died. At one “Come Home Year” event in the town about a decade ago, nurses who had served at different times came back to visit, one of whom was Black. The mission recruited nurses from throughout the British Commonwealth, so it wasn’t entirely surprising, but I was curious about the experiences of Black nurses in Labrador. It was clear that she, like all the other nurses returning to visit at that time, was much appreciated by the townspeople, for whom these nurses were often the only available medical care.
-Lois

Reply
Irene

Karen thank you for telling their stories. We have to tell our stories and bring it to the lime light. No one will do it for us. I can imagine what these women went through being black nurses then which is still ongoing today but in another form of implicit bias. Thanks my dear friend

Reply

Share your Thoughts