Janice Gairey has recently retired from her position as the Human Rights Director at the Ontario Federation of Labour. With a long family history of civil rights activism dating back to her great, great grandfather’s escape from slavery through the Underground Railroad, Janice’s activism is in her blood. Her history is entrenched in working with the communities of colour and comes from her father, the late Desmond Davis, who was a pivotal member of the Black Sleeping Car Porters together with Stan Grizzle and the late Harry Gairey. She has amassed over fifty years as a social justice advocate, with a primary focus on combating racism in Canada.
She started her career at the William J. McCordic School in Toronto, as an Educational Assistant helping students with developmental delays. She quickly moved up the ranks in her own union, and became Vice-President of CUPE 1874. Janice moved on to work as a Project Coordinator for the Toronto and York Labour Council, before settling into her first position with the OFL (Ontario Federation of Labour), as a Regional Coordinator of the Basic Education for Skills Training (BEST) Program. After funding for the workplace literacy program was cancelled by Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s, Janice worked her way through a series of positions in a variety of unions, including SEIU, CUPE, HERE, ACTWU and the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Labour-Community Services, before she returned to the OFL in 2003, as the Education Director.
In 2007, Janice became the OFL’s Human Rights Director to replace the recently retired June Veecock and, like June before her, Janice amplified the OFL’s human rights work through her work with the CBTU. As the longest-serving President of the CBTU’s Ontario Chapter, Janice earned a reputation within the CBTU International for bringing the largest delegations in the Chapter’s history and for bringing forward some of the hardest-hitting resolutions. However, Janice’s equity activism reached far beyond her own community. Under her leadership, the CBTU formed a formal alliance with the Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC) and the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) that was sure to long outlast her tenure. She also became a champion of Aboriginal issues and worked closely with the First Nations, Inuit and Metis community.
Janice continues her work today, promoting racial equality and challenging oppression. She works with the African Canadian Legal Clinic and BlackLivesMattersTO on racial profiling and “carding” in Toronto. She also continues to support Black workers in her role as the Ontario Chapter President Emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), along with her new position on the Executive of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC), which guarantees that Janice’s labour activism is far from over. She recognizes that racialized youth of today will play a significant role in the fight to end racial discrimination.
As a proud mother of six and grandmother of 18, family was an important focal point to Janice’s activism and it was the essence of “people first” leadership style. She devoted her attention to developing other activists and supporting them to become the next generation of leaders. A very humble leader, Janice often avoided the limelight. However, on the occasion of her receipt of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Bromley Armstrong Human Rights Award in 2012, Janice was asked to deliver some remarks from the podium. Her words spoke volumes about her leadership and added further justification for her receipt of the award. She said, “At this stage of my life, I am doing this work for my grandchildren and for my community and no one in any position of power or privilege is going to stop me.” At her retirement this January, Sid Ryan, OFL President said; “Janice has been a torchbearer and a fearless fighter for human rights and has kept our movement honest and demanded that we practice the principles that we preach”.
(photo credit for Haseena Manek)
My first and foremost accomplishment is the positive outcome of focused caregiving, ongoing support and needed nurturing of six amazing children, my nieces and nephews, their friends and my 17 beautiful grandchildren. My most heartfelt and humbling accomplishment was my desire and ability in my OFL Human Rights Director's position and as President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Ontario Chapter and "bucket list wish" desire to mentor and ‘femtor’ many young people of colour to become champions of diversity and human rights in the labour movement, their workplaces and their communities.So proud of all them.
Finally as a personal accomplishment, I became the first Black Canadian to sit on the CBTU International Executive Board and the fact that I was one of the recipients of the Bromley Armstrong Human Rights Award from the Toronto and York Labour Council. It was an emotional experience to be honoured by him and it will never to be forgotten.
What is your best advice for the Next Generation?
Never forget where you came from and honour your ancestors' struggles and achievements. Education open doors and helps to break down barriers, but your positive and focused determination and good spirit will assist you in achieving whatever goals you have set for yourself. Always remember to lend a helping hand and open heart to those in need.
If I were to live my life over again, what would I do differently?
Time Management would be key if I had a chance to live my life again. Balancing work, life and the pursuit of happiness is definitely a juggling act and in reflection, as a retiree, I sometimes forgot to breathe and nurture myself spiritually, emotionally and health-wise. I shouldn't have waited to personally exhale, pause and reflect about life and be OK with that.
Jean Augustine, Denise O'Neil Green & Dauna Jones-Simmonds (Co-Authors)